On Forugh Farrokhzad

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To view The House Is Black click here.

Documentary often focuses our attention on something we might not otherwise notice—a forgotten event, an overlooked historical figure, an ignored social problem, an animal species hidden in plain sight. The House Is Black (1963), currently streaming on FilmStruck, does more than focus our attention; it dares us to look at a subject that will make us uneasy, uncomfortable or just plain upset. Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad conceived and directed The House Is Black, a short documentary that reveals the daily lives of the inhabitants of a leper colony near Tabriz. It is likely the first Iranian documentary ever directed by a woman.

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Street Grand Prix: Ronin (1998)

RONIN

To view Ronin click here.

An Audi S8 sluices through the country roads outside of Nice, running down a trio of anonymous sedans. With the aid of pinpoint braking and navigational support, the Audi sideswipes its final target in the center of the city, taking out an outdoor cafe with it. This brutally exciting sequence halfway through Ronin (1998) typifies its fuel-injected virtues, one in which the cars are the stars just as much as Robert De Niro. It’s been years since I’ve seen it, but I could still recall the make and model of that Audi S8 before the wheelman (Skipp Sudduth) requests it from his handlers. But while the cars are the main attraction, the rest of the film is a slyly elliptical bit of post-Cold War spycraft, as a group of out-of-work spooks are hired to steal a MacGuffin that both the IRA and the Russians are after (Ronin is streaming on FilmStruck as part of its nine-film series “A Movie History of the IRA”). The script was heavily re-written by David Mamet (credited as Richard Weisz due to WGA wrangling), and the film is filled with his weighted repetitions, tangy slang and allusive phrasing, the ex-agents communicating in code, trying not to give themselves away. As on his 1966 racing film Grand Prix, director John Frankenheimer required all the stunt driving to be done at full speed with no special effects. The results are pleasurably stressful, as reflected in De Niro’s white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel – he was actually in a car going 100mph, with his stunt driver operating the vehicle in the opposite seat.

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Personal Moral Codes

MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S (1969)

To view My Night at Maud’s click here.

Éric Rohmer, “the most durable film-maker of the French New Wave”, according to his obituary in The Daily Telegraph, established international prominence when My Night at Maud’s (1969) was nominated for two Academy Awards. My Night at Maud’s is being screened on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck as part of a Blue Christmas theme that invites viewers to “Have a holly, jolly, melancholy, festive season.” With this in mind a black-and-white feature mulling religious and moral questions set in the industrial city of Clermont-Ferrand certainly fits the bill. Rohmer was a champion for authenticity. This means if he was going to film a church mass, it would be a real church mass being delivered to the faithful. If music is heard, it had a diegetic source onscreen and reason to exist. If locations were alluded to, those actual locations were used. And if the story takes place on Christmas Eve, then the film itself had to be shot on Christmas Eve too. This last point is the reason the film was delayed for a year, and may have also contributed to the reason My Night at Maud’s is known for being the third within his Six Moral Tales series, albeit the fourth in order of release.

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Losey Let Loose: The Criminal (1960)

CRIMINAL, THE (1960)

To view The Criminal click here.

Joseph Losey is one of my favorite directors so I was thrilled to discover that his work is currently being spotlighted at FilmStruck. While looking through the collection of films available to stream I was inspired to revisit The Criminal a.k.a. Concrete Jungle (1960), a low-budget British crime thriller about an underworld kingpin named Johnny Bannion (Stanley Baker) who organizes a high-stakes robbery that goes terribly wrong. When he finds himself behind bars a second time, Bannion has to rely on his brawn, brains, bravado and faith to survive.

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The Killer is Loose: He Walked By Night (1948)

HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948)

To view He Walked By Night click here.

He Walked By Night (1948) strips the police procedural to the bone. There are no backstories or love interests, just the case at hand, rigorously filmed by director of photography John Alton and directors Alfred Werker and Anthony Mann (FilmStruck is streaming five Anthony Mann/John Alton Noir collaborations: T-Men [1948], Raw Deal [1948], He Walked By NightBorder Incident [1949] and Devil’s Doorway [1950]). Inspired by the 1946 crime spree of former Army Lieutenant Erwin Walker, the movie is obsessed with process, of both the cops and the killer. The police methodically trudge through witness interviews and crowdsource a sketch of the suspect, while the equally conscientious criminal attempts to wipe his identity from public record. Made in the semi-documentary style popularized by The Naked City (1948), though on a lower budget, it can be no-frills to the point of abstraction, as both sides of the law disappear into the shadows of Los Angeles’ sewer system. [...MORE]

Best Friends Forever: Girlfriends (1978)

GIRLFRIENDS (1978)

Claudia Weill described her companionable film Girlfriends (1978) with a quote from the Eleanor Bergstein novel Advancing Paul Newman: “This is a story of two girls, each of whom suspected the other of a more passionate connection with life.” Or to put it in modern parlance, it’s a comedy of FOMO (fear of missing out). Girlfriends portrays the NYC friendship between the Jewish brunette Susan Weinblatt (Melanie Mayron) and the WASP blonde Anne Munroe (Anita Skinner). Susan is delaying family life to pursue a career in photography, while Anne speeds into marriage and kids while putting her writing to the side. They envy the other’s freedom and security, respectively, and their once unbreakable bond begins to fray. Girlfriends began as a documentary project on Jewish American identity, with funding from the AFI, but instead Weill funneled all her research into an independent feature, one so well-received it was picked up by Warner Bros. for distribution. Though the set-up can be a bit schematic, Weill has the patience of a documentarian and allows the actors to build their characters from types into complex personalities (shooting on location in shabby NYC apartments helps with the verisimilitude). The cast is superb all around, from Mayron and Skinner to the men who pursue them with varying degrees of success (an anxious Bob Balaban, flighty Christopher Guest and a charismatic Eli Wallach). Girlfriends is streaming on FilmStruck, and is also airing on Turner Classic Movies Wednesday March 8 at 9:15am.

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Treasures Left Behind

THE GLEANERS AND I, (aka LES GLANEURS ET LA GLANEUSE), director Agnes Varda, 2000. ©Zeitgeist Films/

As of late a lot of my friends are purging themselves of records, books, movies and more. I’ve been the happy recipient of these spoils and, as best I can, I have been trying to give these items a good home. Something in this act reminds me of The Gleaners and I (2000) – a documentary by Agnès Varda about people who make their living sifting through that which has been discarded by others. Varda, who made her first film at the age of 26 (La Pointe Courte, 1955) and whose work was essential to the French New Wave, was the first woman to receive an honorary Palme d’or two years ago. Her work is infused with a deep intellect that is kind, ruminative and open to experimentation.

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Is It Ever Really Easy? Blood Simple (1984)

BLOOD SIMPLE (1984)

It seems hard to believe, but the Coen Brothers made their debut film well over thirty years ago now. In 1984 they put together their own trailer, a trailer for a movie they hadn’t even made, and went about getting the financing to make the film come true. The result was Blood Simple, a crime thriller that was also a showcase for some of the best talent in the movies at that time, talent that, to this day, has never gotten its full due. But it also stands as a testament to how artists change, how they view their work and whether any of it matters in the final analysis.

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Creative Collaboration: Jane B. par Agnès V. (1988)

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When Jane Birkin (Blow-Up [1966], Wonderwall [1968], La Piscine [1968], Don Juan (or If Don Juan Were a Woman) [1973], Je t’aime moi non plus [1976], Death on the Nile [1978], Evil Under the Sun [1982], La Belle Noiseuse [1991]), Boxes [2006]) was getting ready to celebrate her 40th birthday in 1986 she confessed to filmmaker Agnès Varda that she had reservations about growing older. Varda, who was almost 60-years-old at the time, told Birkin that she was about to enter a wonderful phase in her life and asked if she could shoot a cinematic portrait of the actress, filmmaker, model and chanteuse that demonstrated her evolution. After some coaxing, Birkin agreed and together the two friends crafted the creative docudrama Jane B. par Agnès V. (1988) currently streaming on FilmStruck as part of The Masters: Agnès Varda collection.

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Workin’ Man’s Blues: Man is Not a Bird (1965)

MAN IS NOT A BIRD, A (1966)

Dušan Makavejev made his directorial debut with Man is Not a Bird (1965), a raucous portrait of a Yugoslav mining city currently streaming on FilmStruck as part of the Directed by Dušan Makavejev theme. Made with the full cooperation of the residents of Bor, an industrial town in eastern Serbia, the movie is filled with hypnotist acts, marriage breakdowns, circus routines and brief, bitter affairs. It is based on the real lives of people that Makavejev interviewed before shooting, while indulging the director’s love of the carnivalesque, injecting Makavejev’s absurdist humor into a film that, by subject matter anyway, inherits the tradition of the Communist social realist films of previous decades. But these worker-heroes, while awarded and celebrated by the local government, have made messes of their personal lives. Makavejev said that with this film he “was trying to explain that you can have global changes but people can still stay the same, unhappy or awkward or privately confused.”

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