June 2019 Capsules

Blue Velvet (rewatch)
One of the keys to Blue Velvet is that, at least in the heightened collection of Americana that is Lumberton, Jeffrey is closer to a bad boy than when viewed from the vantage point of 1986 (or now). The earring is of course the tell-tale sign, but it is evident throughout: the slight unrecollection of Detective Williams, the appellation of “Ivy League” from Sandy’s jilted boyfriend, the approving comments of the high school girls. Lynch’s vision is less of total innocence corrupted and only partially restored than the exposure of that which was hidden in plain sight — like an ear only uncovered when searching for rocks to lob at a beer bottle in a fit of stifled discouragement. Sandy is the innocent (and luminous), but Jeffrey is something more undefinable and complex: the boy investigator, the lover of mysteries both benign and seductive, the detective *and* the pervert.

The Awful Truth
There are far too many standout scenes in this staggering masterwork, but perhaps one of the most representative of The Awful Truth‘s genius is one of its most seemingly direct, with its central couple and their farcical paramours (one of whom, Dixie Belle, holds this as her only scene in the film) together in a club. In purely narrative terms, this scene’s utility is to provide the inspiration for Lucy’s “drunken” performance near the end of the film, but it possesses a dynamic that speaks to the ensuing hijinks within the scene and through the rest of the film. McCarey isn’t necessarily subtle with how he conveys the prevailing relationships, but it remains both effective and hilarious: through much of the scene, the divorcing Jerry and Lucy are captured in a two-shot, while Leeson and Dixie Belle are shunted off into their own separate singles, a decision that enhances the spouses’ connection by way of discomfort at their present states.

In the spirit of the film, this initial situation is spun out further, with not one but two full performances. Jerry is in many ways the figure in charge here, remaining as the spectator, but just as important is the genuine sense of glee on Leeson’s face, the shameless committment of Dixie Belle, the sheepish embarassment of Lucy. And one of the film’s finest bits of subtlety is here, as Jerry moves seats, first to the space vacated by Dixie Belle, and then to Leeson’s. It is a mastery of space, an assertion of dominance, which plugs directly into the tug-of-war at The Awful Truth‘s core, and that he does it with a full grin makes it all the more pleasurable.

March 2019 Capsules

Transit
The central conceit, of an environment where the anachronistic elements are essential to the frissons of the whole endeavor, is brilliant, but even more impressive might be Petzold’s restraint and careful deployment. Transit never comes off as overbearing in this — or indeed any — regard: there are no intrusions of technologies that could not have been replicated in the 1940s. The effect is so much richer in this withholding; because the situation is so carefully etched and the stakes so closely tied to a specific time, one can very easily forget the present-tense trappings. But when a modern car trundles into view, or a soldier in an American uniform and an assault rifle stands guard, the effect is continually vivid and bracing, never unsurprising, but never *just* a reminder that what is past is present.

A telling sign, and just one of many moments that shows that Petzold completely understands what he’s accomplishing: Georg lights his cigarettes with matches, not a lighter.

Last Year at Marienbad (rewatch)
As much as any one of the elements in Last Year at Marienbad, Resnais understands the inherent uneasiness and ethereality of his constantly moving camera. It glides past people, emphasizing the spaces around the figures rather than the statuesque forms themselves. In many senses, the people are nigh indistinguishable from the background themselves, and yet to say that Resnais gives them no inner life would be wholly inaccurate. The snatches of conversation, the particular glances or looks that they have on their faces, suggests the possibility of infinite stories, even past the multiple manifestations of the central relationships. It is a limitless film, consisting of hallways and memories leading to everywhere and nowhere.

February 2019 Capsules

Céline and Julie Go Boating
Perhaps the most elegant metaphor for cinema ever devised, and crucially Céline and Julie Go Boating lacks a *visible* camera (which would localize its aesthetic concerns too thoroughly); Rivette’s supreme intelligence is such that theater and cinema, to an even greater extent than in his past films, mesh through his deftness of both staging and editing, as each new shot choice or repetition creates its own associations. Plus, what image of a moviegoer is more relatable than the two women staring slack-jawed at the screen, occasionally giggling or gasping in disbelief?

Blackhat [rewatch, first time director’s cut]
Impossible to state how much the inclusion of the ship denied harbor by the effect of the rising soy prices does to establish the world in which Blackhat moves: it is one set by nebulous rules and regulations, where the fate of innumerable people can be turned by the whims of a ghost in the machine.

Only a ghost can kill another ghost.

January 2019 Capsules

The Mother and the Whore
Will go into this much, much further on the podcast, but it’s so difficult to quantify why this film functions as perhaps the epitome of what the French New Wave birthed. Is it that it simply exemplifies the principles of the Nouvelle Vague and pushes them to their logical conclusion? Or is it that Jean Eustache is just more attuned to his characters, more deft at sifting through the inherent effects of prior political associations and affiliations on present relationships? The answer probably lies to some degree in both, but perhaps most important of all is that the Nouvelle Vague — in many ways like Gilberte — acts as a phantom that shadows The Mother and the Whore without necessarily tangibly affecting it. What is apparent is the film’s openness, manifested in forms that register in the narrative as both positive (the indelibly etched relations) and negative (the frankness, the frequent crassness). All of these are inherent to Alexandre, Veronika, and Marie as they exist as people (and, it must be inferred, Eustache and his real-life lovers), and that lack of filter, that willingness to confront the morass of humanity head-on, is what feels so shattering about this monumental work.

November 2018 Capsules

Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
One of the most subtly yet immediately poignant moments in this masterwork comes midway through the film, when Jeanne is drinking coffee in a café. After she finishes and pays, she puts her elbow on the table and pauses, looking to her right with that placid yet fundamentally unreadable expression that she wears for nearly the entire film. It is the first — if not the last — time that the next step in her routine is not readily apparent to the audience, when she is given the chance to stop and ponder. Its brevity (it lasts less than twenty seconds) and its placement both within a larger shot and a larger sequence (she has just bought some yarn to continue knitting a sweater for her son) is emblematic of everything that this film accomplishes, everything that it evokes and embodies.

October 2018 Capsules

A Star Is Born
Yes, “The Man That Got Away” might be the greatest musical number ever committed to film, but one sequence seems to capture the spirit of this extravagant, devastating masterpiece even better: “Born in a Trunk.” (Complicating this of course is the fact that “Born in a Trunk” was filmed after Cukor had finished his involvement with the film, though this only strengthens its connections to the machinations of Hollywood.) The medley of songs from numerous genres indulges in all the abstraction and expressionism possible in the American film industry, lunging through vividly contrasting set after set, with the only connective tissue being Garland’s voice and physicality. It is blatantly, gloriously unclear whether this is some part of Vicki Lester’s star-making role or a mental projection of her thinking on her past life through said role – notably, the Academy ratio of the film-within-the-film expands to CinemaScope in the span of a cut. Comparisons to Gene Kelly’s repeated intonations of “dignity, always dignity” or even “Broadway Melody” from Singin’ in the Rain are there, of course, but the lines between role, performer-in-a-role, and performer are even further blurred. And throughout, it is so clear that Vicki Lester is the real deal, that she must shine and diminish all around her. This is the film in less than 15 minutes; what makes it what is is the two and a half hours left: not one second is anything less than vital.

September 2018 Capsules

Hahaha
I can’t say if this technique is totally unprecedented in film, but Hong’s decision to render Hahaha‘s present-day scenes exclusively in black-and-white stills – à la the “previously ons” in Out 1, interestingly enough – and voiceover is at once a remarkably and counterintuitively lovely choice and so indicative of the general playfulness that marks his entire work. Though Moon-kyung says that he and Joong-sik stick to the pleasant parts of their scattered recollections, the film frequently goes down the thornier and more melancholic avenues that characterize Hong’s work, often within the same scene. In this light, and given the connotation that black-and-white and voiceover often have in more conventional films, the present almost function as the memories in this film, fragmented and constructed more out of sensations and glances than anything else. Though it will likely be the last time these friends meet for some time, it feels as if it is already passing into the recesses of their minds; what matters more is the small city of Tongyeong, and the people and places that inhabit it. A faintly ridiculous dream with a long gone admiral-hero, a piano piece, numerous scraps of poetry, the sensation of holding someone close: these are the good things in life.

July 2018 Capsules

Ashes of Time [Original]
But first time with the original cut, which feels like another beast entirely; where the Redux felt as if from another world out of time, this feels rooted in a specific cultural and geographic context. What stay the same are the faces, the ruminations on memory and figures.

The Grandmaster (rewatch)
The key to The Grandmaster lies in the photos, in those moments where time comes to a total standstill. If, as Ip says, once a move – whether it be on a chessboard, in the flurry of fists, in the grand scheme of history – has been made, it cannot be taken back, then these act as the concrete points of delineation. Color fades to black-and-white, and though the participants may then leave, their trace cannot be erased. So it is with their destinies. Gong Er has no choice but to fight Ma San, her father must pass on the torch, Ip can never return to Foshan: they are defined as much by their actions, their lot in life, as by their skill in combat. All eventually reach this state of acceptance, where they become resigned to their fates; that Ip is the last one that remains vertical is no accident.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
Perhaps most startling, among so many of the elemental parts that combine to form The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, is Lau Kar-leung’s sense of editing, especially during the training sequences. Once Liu finishes the strength courses and moves into learning the forms of kung fu, Lau moves into almost an entirely different vein of conveying his narrative. Neither strictly montage (in the sequence definition) nor the entirely step-by-step mode in which the film had proceeded prior, the chambers flow into each other: hands into legs, legs into sword, sword into staff. These delineations are clear to the viewer, but Lau cuts so fluidly on movement that the viewer is constantly brought anew into another discipline. So it is with the rest of the film, so dedicated to laying out every step with clarity, and yet accomplishing it in a way that feels essential to not just Liu’s training, but the possibilities of the human form at large.

June 2018 Capsules

That Day, on the Beach
Yang’s sensibility and perspective eventually becomes unmistakeable throughout That Day, on the Beach, but, aside from perhaps “Expectations,” this is the first work I’ve seen from him where the perspective is so heavily colored by a single character’s viewpoint, whether it be Jiali’s or someone else’s. For a director so otherwise forthright in his storytelling – though, of course, the rapid changes in character focus are a key component of his expansive and all-encompassing vision – Yang goes for a full-bore elliptical approach. Memory slips in and out of the viewer’s headspace, some “flashbacks” (although clearly the past is meant to be fully present) lasting mere moments and others lingering for seemingly close to an hour. Incredibly, all this happens while the film operates on an emotional register that manages to evoke melodrama while ostensibly remaining within the restraint and distance that Yang deployed even more skillfully in the films to come.

And what makes this structure – which folds in on itself to access the most formative moments – so vital is this feeling of transience. To say Yang’s films are fundamentally about modernity is far too general, but it manifests itself even in the moments that are meant to be past: society and the codes of conduct (in the home, in the workplace, in the city) are never far away, and they bear down on the individual and the marriage in ways both plainly visible and achingly invisible. The prospect of escape is tantalizing, but even with a triumphant final image the viewer (and Yang) is all too aware of the cost, the long, meandering, jumbled journey required to get there. And in that, seemingly all of human emotion and experience can be found.

My Blueberry Nights
Rather than, as I feared, a simple recapitulation or dilution of Wong’s trademark themes and style, My Blueberry Nights feels almost like a doubling down or an elaboration, transplanting his concerns and slightly but noticeably modifying them. This is as much a film about outsiders trapped in their own orbits as his other movies: a café owner who uses keys, pies, and videotapes as totems of memory; a cop who drinks like every day’s his last; an impulsive, confident gambler who seems to traverse the same landscapes that Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung crossed. It’s not an especially difficult task to assign certain roles – Norah Jones as Faye Wong (down to the use of their respective music), Jude Law as an exceptional mirror of Takeshi Kaneshiro – and indeed the three sections almost seem to follow a progression from Chungking Express to Fallen Angels to Happy Together. And the look and the music, the repetitions and the way images jump and flow into each other, the loneliness, the often intentional goofiness; all of these are universal, captured by Wong in a look, in a glance, in a frame.

April 2018 Capsules

Les Vampires
If a summation of what makes Les Vampires such a pleasurable experience inevitably devolves into a description of just a handful of its most indelible moments, this is by no means a weakness on the part of the film. Even more than most of the great directors, Feuillade seems to think in terms of the scene, plotting out all of the possibilities of drastic narrative change within this discrete block of time and then executing any number of them. The suspense aspect most associated with a “crime thriller” such as this is quickly replaced with the pleasure of the unexpected, and the even greater pleasure of seeing so many twists and turns executed so flawlessly, with such a skillful restraint in technique matched with the most outlandish developments imaginable.

Also everyone is superhuman in this.