Living in the Past: The Music Room (1958)

MUSIC ROOM, THE (1958)

Citizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard both use similar visual motifs to communicate the decay of body and spirit with their principal characters. We see their homes, those of Charles Foster Kane and Norma Desmond, looking abandoned and in utter disrepair. The pools are empty, the grounds are unkempt and overgrown, and the owners are either at death’s doorstep (Kane) or living on the brink of complete irrelevance. The images are beautiful and surreal and effortlessly communicate the idea of two once powerful people now living in quiet anonymity. In The Music Room (1958), directed by Satyajit Ray and available on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, the idea is similar but the motifs are different. The house and its surroundings have the same sense of abandonment but the focus is not on the real estate but on the central character, sitting in a chair, motionless and quiet. As his servant approaches, he asks “What month is it?” What month. Not the time, or the day, or even the week but the month. That’s how completely out of touch he is with the world around him. He’s not dead but he may as well be.

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The Steep Emotional Climb of The Ascent (1976)

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The year of 1977 in the movies is overshadowed by one major box office transforming success, Star Wars. It is also known as the year that Woody Allen stepped away from slapstick and journeyed into more sophisticated filmmaking, enjoying both critical and Oscar success with Annie Hall, which won Best Picture. What it is not known for is the gut-kicking morality tale directed by Larisa Shepitko, The Ascent (released in the USSR in 1976, Europe and the states, 1977). Too bad, it’s the best film of the year. Hell, it may be the best film of the seventies.

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Polly Maggoo Is Back in Fashion

QUI ETES-VOUS, POLLY MAGGOO?, (aka WHO ARE YOU, POLLY MAGGOO?), 1966

We all find different passages into movies we love. Sometimes a film grabs you in the opening moments and you know right away it’s something you’ll love and watch over and over for years. Then there are others that take some time and effort, growing on you gradually after you’ve watched them and only becoming favorites with repeated visits and reflection.

One film that fell into the first category for me is Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966), the debut feature film for American photographer and filmmaker William Klein. A controversial and oft-censored purveyor of fashion fantasies at Vogue, he had little but contempt for the fashion industry and particularly the magazine’s tastemaking editor-in-chief, Diana Vreeland (fictionalized here as Ms. Maxwell). You’d think this film about an American ingénue entering the European fashion world would be filled with venom and vitriol, but no, it’s actually more of a quirky, witty takedown, so deliciously stylish and enjoyable that you can easily watch it without any knowledge of Klein’s behind-the-scenes axe to grind. It also has one of my favorite opening scenes in movie history. [...MORE]

A Symphony of Inner Lives

THREE COLOURS BLUE (FR1993) JULIETTE BINOCHE

He was (and remains) a titan in the arthouse world. One of his masterpieces was made for television and this year finally got a Blu-ray release (Dekalog, 1988), but it was The Double Life of Veronique (1991) that launched his international career and paved the way for the Three Colors – a trilogy of films that accomplished the rather stunning feat of premiering at three different major festivals within months of each other. At Venice, Blue (1993) screened in September, followed five months later by a February screening at Berlin of White (1994), and then three months later in May – the one that wrapped it all up – Red (1994), had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. This Herculean feat was made possible in part by the director’s habit of shooting one film while simultaneously editing the preceding film. [...MORE]

Truffaut’s Waltz into Darkness

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Though he still doesn’t quite enjoy household name status, Cornell Woolrich might be the most influential American mystery writer of the past century. The adaptations are an obvious place to start with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) leading the pack, but his real legacy is the way he permanently embedded modern thrillers with recurring themes of the unreliability of memory, the pitfalls of falling in love with someone you think you know and the inescapable darkness that can claim even the most virtuous of souls. If you want to find out where films like Memento (2000) and The Usual Suspects (1995) came from, look no further than this master storyteller.

Hollywood really jumped on the Woolrich bandwagon in the ‘40s with a slew of radio adaptations as well as fascinating films like The Leopard Man (1943), Phantom Lady (1944), The Chase (1946), and Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948). The big screen took less of an interest in him the following decades as television honed in on him instead, churning out numerous versions of his novels and short stories for home viewers on such programs as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Thriller. The 1960s would prove to be Woolrich’s last decade on earth with his passing in 1968, but he had another resurgence from a most unlikely source: acclaimed French filmmaker François Truffaut.

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Dirty Pool: La Cienaga (2001)

CIENEGA, LA (2001)

La Ciénaga (2001) translates as “The Swamp”, and it is a fetid, decaying film—its forests overgrown and its characters unwashed. For her feature debut, Lucrecia Martel depicts the dissolution of a middle-class Argentine family through sound and set design. To escape the humid city during the summer, they retreat to their country home, a rotting edifice with a filthy leaf-choked pool. With nothing to do, the adults check out on iced red wine while the children tote rifles through an overgrown forest literally shooting their eyes out. The soundtrack is thick with clinking ice, chairs dragging on cement and distant thunder. Martel emphasizes the moments and sounds in-between actions since her characters have very little interest in performing any actions themselves. Instead, they sit, drink and complain. La Ciénaga is a blackly funny portrayal of middle-class self-absorption—of a people so wrapped up in themselves they cannot see that their clothes are dirty, the walls are peeling and the pool is a bacterial broth. It is now streaming on FilmStruck and available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion.

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The Light in the Darkness: Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

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On November 20th, 1975, the dictator of Spain, Francisco Franco died.  It could be said that on that day the director Pedro Almodóvar was born. Almodóvar, who had wanted to study film in school but couldn’t because Franco had shut down the National School of Cinema in Madrid, spent several years studying on his own, any way he could.  When Franco died, a new revolution took hold, a cultural one. Almodóvar was an important part of it. The movement, known as La Movida Madrileña, was an explosion of artistic expression long suppressed, in which artists like Almodóvar could finally do what they had longed to for so long: create.  Almodóvar was pulled towards the perverse, a need to explore the underbelly of life that had so long been ignored and actively resisted. From this would spring a film canon unlike any other. A canon in which relationships often walk hand in hand with violence, in which the dead still haunt the living, in which suspense, terror and dread can pop up at any moment right in the middle of a romantic comedy. He doesn’t always succeed, but when he does, he creates some of the best movies the cinema has yet seen. 

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‘Til Death Do They Part: La Poison (1951)

POISON, LA (1951)

When inspiration failed Francois Truffaut, he would look at a 1957 photo of Sacha Guitry sitting on his deathbed, working on a moviola. Truffaut said looking at the image made him “recover my good mood, bravery, and every courage in the world.” An indefatigable playwright, performer, and filmmaker, Guitry was a model of a complete director for Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, who advocated for Guitry’s work in the early years of Cahiers du Cinema. Godard included Guitry in a “gang of four” French filmmakers (along with Pagnol, Cocteau and Duras) who demonstrated a “grandeur and power” which enabled him and the other New Wave filmmakers to believe in cinema as an art form (Guitry appears multiple times in Godard’s Histoire du Cinema). Like Orson Welles (another Guitry fan), Guitry was raised in the theater, and used his command of theatrical effects to experimental uses on film, especially in his teasing, self-reflexive use of voice-over. Though there was a flurry of appreciations when Criterion released their essential box set in 2010, he has never gained the same level of recognition in the States as his peers. One of his late masterpieces, La Poison (1951), is available for streaming on FilmStruck – it was previously unavailable in any format in the U.S. A gleefully black comedy about dueling spouses who both dream of killing the other, it features a savagely funny performance by Michel Simon as a self-justifying murderer.

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Roger Vadim: The Devil Is a Frenchman

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I come here to praise Roger Vadim, not to bury him. Perhaps the most notorious bad boy director of French cinema, Vadim has been the subject of a few reputation rehab attempts over the years on home video, but it never seems to stick. Instead he’s still remembered (if at all) as the lothario who romanced Catherine Deneuve, Jane Fonda, and Brigitte Bardot, with the latter two becoming his wives. Granted, that’s a reputation Vadim himself did more than a bit to encourage by writing autobiographies with titles like Memoirs of the Devil and Bardot, Deneuve & Fonda: My Life with the Three Most Beautiful Women in the World. On the other hand, if people can wake up and enshrine Russ Meyer in the auteur firmament, there’s no reason his closest French counterpart shouldn’t have the same chance. One of his most outrageous films (and first Hollywood effort), 1971’s Pretty Maids All in a Row, will be shimmying back onto TCM in the wee hours this Thursday, August 18th, but that’s just the opening salvo in a full-on Vadim assault on your senses in August. On Tuesday, August 23rd, you can also savor his contribution to the three-film Edgar Allan Poe anthology Spirits of the Dead (1968) and, as part of the day’s Summer under the Stars salute to Brigitte Bardot, see some of their collaborations with The Night Heaven Fell (1958), And God Created Woman (1956), and Love on a Pillow (1962). Be sure to check out the other Bardot films, too, as they ramp up to the final sublime entry, Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963).
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Summer of Rohmer: The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007)

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I am ending my Summer of Rohmer series with a film set in the spring. Yes, it is a shocking betrayal of the series’ seasonal brand, but I was eager to revisit The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007), and extend my stay in Rohmer’s world. Over the last six weeks I have traveled to a variety of France’s hottest vacation spots for romantic anxiety, from a Saint-Tropez country house in La Collectionneuse (1967) to Dinard, the beachside town in A Summer’s Tale (1997).  The Romance of Astrea and Celadon transported me to the valley of the Sioule in Auvergne, a bucolic green landscape for star-crossed lovers in 5th-century Gaul to suffer in. For his final feature (he passed away in 2010), Rohmer adapted Honoré d’Urfé’s L’Astree (ca. 1607 – 1627), a 5,000 page hit at the royal courts. Rohmer focused on the spine of the digressive novel – the romance between the shepherd Celadon and the shepherdess Astrea, and the miscommunication, madness, and masquerades that delay their union. Though set millennia in the past, the film works over familiar Rohmerian ground, as it ponders the nature of love and fidelity, while trying to square the contradictory impulses of each.

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