Daily Archives: October 1, 2000

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

After making what are still probably their two best features, the Coen brothers came up with their worst (2000), a piece of pop nihilism about three convicts (George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Turturro) on the run. Fargo dealt with their home state (Minnesota) and the present and The Big Lebowski with LA at the time of the gulf war. But when it comes to Mississippi and the Depression, the Coens are so contemptuous they can’t even come up with characters. What they really seem to care about are yuppie collectibles, like Robert Johnson albums. A movie’s in trouble when its best sequence is a whimsical musical number featuring the Ku Klux Klanwhich the Coens seem to regard as yet another antique. With John Goodman, Holly Hunter, and Charles Durning. 106 min. (JR)… Read more »

Life As A Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease

Fans of Woody Allen’s noncomic features might well go for this glum spiritual study of a physician adjustingmainly with dignity and common senseto his own death from inoperable cancer. Despite the jokey title, this has only a modicum of wisecracks, and its mordant Polish wisdom, while genuine, mainly seems all too familiar. It begins with a medieval-looking film-within-the-film about a horse thief and the religious guide who prepares him offscreen for death by hanging, then shifts to the doctor on the movie’s location; he remains the focus thereafter, as he gradually learns about his terminal illness. I’ve never seen any of Krzysztof Zanussi’s most famous films, which are highly respected, and perhaps I approached this picture with the wrong kind of expectations. It certainly isn’t a bad film, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Zbigniew Zapasiewicz is commanding as the hero; Krystyna Janda costars. 99 min. (JR)… Read more »

Thomas In Love

If you’re intrigued by notions of virtual sex in cyberspace, this Belgian-French SF effort by Pierre-Paul Renders seems calculated to exhaust that fascination. The eponymous, agoraphobic hero in the not-so-distant future hasn’t left his home in eight years, and after his on-line psychoanalyst signs him up with a dating service and his insurance broker hooks him up with specialized prostitutes, a procession of real or virtual potential sex partners appears on his computer screen. The minimalist conceit of this movie is that Thomas is heard but never seen; his subjective stand-inas in Robert Montgomery’s 1946 Lady in the Lake and in Orson Welles’s unrealized screenplay adapting Heart of Darknessis the movie camera. Such a gimmickcamera eye equals Ibecomes particularly monotonous when the camera doesn’t move: Thomas is a couch potato as well as a recluse, and a terminal bore to boot. The women, real and simulated, are only slightly more interesting, and then only when they talk back. 97 min. (JR)… Read more »

A Belly Full

The original French title of Melvin Van Peebles’s crudely overblown farce means The Tale of the Full Belly, referring both to the name of the provincial bistro (Le Ventre Plein) run by a middle-aged couple (Andrea Ferreol and Jacques Boudet) with an unmarried, pregnant daughter and to the faked pregnancy of the poor black woman (Meiji U. Tum’Si) they hire as a waitress. That hoax eventually allows the couple, posing as racially tolerant liberal employers, to pass off their daughter’s baby as hers. The flamboyant manner of this feature puts it in the category of the cinema of vulgar excess, and the highly eclectic visual style (leering wide-angle close-ups, fast action in the manner of silent slapstick, arbitrary superimpositions) seems to reflect Van Peebles’s boredom with the material. I’m not clear why the story is set in 1967; one possible reason is that Van Peebles wrote it back then and had to wait 30-odd years to find financing for it. In French with subtitles. 102 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Mole People

As a 13-year-old, I liked this low-budget Universal-International production (1956) about ancient Sumerians, but older people told me it was bad and, roughly a decade later, lots of others decided it was camp. Virgil Vogel directed; with John Agar. 78 min. (JR)… Read more »

Berlin-cinema (titre-provisoire)

Samira Gloor-Fadel’s nonfiction feature about Berlin drifts in more ways than one, and the sense that it’s a notebook is captured by the French subtitle, which means provisional title. Mixing color with black and white, this 1999 Swiss-French coproduction is less a documentary or essay than a box full of loose objects, some of them fairly interesting. We see and hear Wim Wenders ruminating about Berlin, film and video, stories, texts, buildings, and absence, mainly in French and sometimes in conversation with architect Jean Nouvel. We hear (but don’t see) R… Read more »

La Revelateur

Philippe Garrel’s silent, 35-millimeter black-and-white experimental feature of 1968. Shot in Munich and environs, it’s less a narrative than a series of allegorical scenes in which actors Bernadette Lafont and Laurent Terzieff (both of whom Garrel had just met at a film festival) and a little boy portray a kind of hippie nuclear family. Beautifully filmed and inflected (the lighting and camera movements are especially striking and intense), often totally enigmatic, this haunting and poetic work helps to explain why Garrel has been a key influence on Leos Carax. Cinematographer Michel Fournier, who often worked with Garrel during this period, considers this their best collaboration, and it’s easy to see why, especially in the ingenious filming of both natural settings and interiors to give this low-budget effort a studio flavor. (Some moments of sped-up action suggest that Garrel may have intended this to be seen at 18 frames per second, the traditional silent-film speednot an option, alas, for this screening, at which the film will run a little over an hour.) (JR)… Read more »

Destroy Yourselves

This 1968 feature was one of the first Zanzibar films, a group of low-budget experimental works made in France during the late 1960s. By turns fascinating and frustrating, it mixes playful nihilism with political exhortation. At one point an abstraction of a flashing ambulance light leads to a flicker sequence of black and white frames, and later a dialogue plays out in voice-over against a black screen. Though the film has minimal dialogue, a number of monologues shot in long takes seem crucial: in one sequence, filmed at the University of Nanterre only a month before the revolutionary action of May 1968, art critic Alain Jouffroy lectures on the need for revolution to a large hall with only four people in it. Director Serge Bard made this first film at age 21 and directed two more before converting to Islam and renouncing cinema in 1969. 75 min. (FC)… Read more »

Love Unto Death

Alain Resnais’ film maudit in more ways than one, this haunting and rarely seen 1984 feature, his third and final collaboration with screenwriter Jean Gruault, is one of his boldest experiments in musical form. Resnais commissioned avant-garde composer Hans Werner Henze, who previously wrote the score to Muriel, to write a chamber piece consisting of 52 discontinuous short sections; until the film’s final shot, when this music is finally combined with the action, it is performed exclusively between scenes, over a black background that is most often traversed by drifting motes resembling snowflakes. The plot, featuring the same actors as Resnais’ subsequent Melo, is a love story about an archaeologist (Pierre Arditi) who is pronounced dead by a doctor in the film’s first scene only to come back to life a few moments later; though he and his devoted wife (Sabine Azema) are atheists, they are subsequently preoccupied with the meaning and reality of death and how this will or won’t separate them, which they discuss with a couple who are their friends and neighbors (Andre Dussollier and Fanny Ardant), both Lutheran ministers. A creepy film that was being written while Francois Truffaut (whom Gruault worked with often, on films including Jules and Jim and The Green Room) was dying, this recalls certain efforts of Ingmar Bergman in both its austerity and its morbidity; the music functions basically as a zone of meditation as well as a kind of metaphor for death and nonbeingthough many of these passages are quite brief and sometimes the motes are simply distracting.… Read more »

Werckmeister Harmonies

A chilling, mesmerizing, intense account of ethnic cleansing (in spirit if not in letter) from Hungarian master Bela Tarr (2000, 145 min.), set in virtually the same overcast, rural black-and-white world as his Damnation and Satantango (both also cowritten by Laszlo Krasznahorkai). As in the Satantango, Krasznahorkai worked with Tarr in adapting his own novelin this case the first to be translated into English, The Melancholy of Resistance, elaborately restructured here in terms of narrative sequence and viewpoint so that it’s mainly limited to the experience of a simpleminded messenger and artist figure. A decrepit circus (actually a huge truck) in an impoverished town displays the stuffed body of the largest whale in the world while spreading rumors about but failing to deliver a foreign prince. Eventually the unemployed male locals head for the local hospital like a lynch mob and proceed to devastate the premises. Krasznahorkai’s parallels with southern gothic fiction are as striking as those with other eastern European allegories, yielding cadenced prose as monotonously grim as Thomas Bernhard’s. The long takes following charactersthe structural equivalent of the novel’s Faulknerian sentences, though the content recalls Beckett’s comedy of inertiaunderline our easy complicity with these monsters, and the actors, including Hanna Schygulla in a welcome comeback, are riveting.… Read more »

Blue Moon

Scripted and directed by Ko I-chenga member of the Taiwanese new wave best known as an actor outside of Taiwan, particularly for his roles in Edward Yang filmsthis exciting feature consists of five 20-minute reels designed to be shown in any order, so that 120 versions of the film are possible. (Ko wrote all five scripts simultaneously, on different colored sheets of paper.) In most respects this is a conventional, even commercial narrative feature, which makes for what I like most about itit demands the viewer’s creative participation at the same time that it pretends to satisfy all the usual expectations. All five reels feature more or less the same characters and settingsincluding a young woman, a writer, a film producer, and a restaurant owner, all of whom live in Taipei and belong to the same circlebut in each reel the woman is involved with one of two men. One can construct a continuous narrative by positing some reels as flashbacks, as flash-forwards, or as events that transpire in a parallel universe. I’ve seen this picture only once, but I’m dying to see it again, to see what new configurations result. If you’re feeling adventurous, I’d advise you to buy a ticket to at least two of the four scheduled screenings.… Read more »

Belfast, Maine

Frederick Wiseman’s patient, four-hour unpacking of a small town in Maine confirms the impression of his previous masterpiece, Public Housing: that the masterful documentarian of High School (1968) and Welfare (1975) has now become a masterful essayist. Or maybe he’s been an essayist all along but has lately begun exercising his intelligence and organizing his documentary materials in increasingly subtle and nondidactic ways. What seems different and special about his recent work is its avoidance of easy theses. He picked as his subject this seaside community of 6,000 inhabitants, 99 percent of them white, because he lived a few miles away. He explains his approach as follows: To document both change and continuity brought about by economic pressure on everyday life in Belfast, I examine its institutions and everyday practices. I also take a look at places where people interact: family life, commerce, public services, and public places. My favorite scene is a high school teacher’s brilliant lecture on Moby-Dick that throws a great deal of light on everything else, but a lot of what I remember most vividly is the documentation of the daily work involved in preparing and packaging seafoodnone of it boring to watch. Released in 1999, this went pretty quickly to PBS, but a big screen gives it the monumentality and weight it deserves.… Read more »

Dr. T & The Women

Prior to its hyperbolic final act, this is one of Robert Altman’s most skillful and least bombastic features in some time. But I’m uncomfortable with the blatant misogyny at its center, which isn’t mitigated by the fact that the script was written by a womanAnne Rapp, who also wrote Cookie’s Fortune. This comedy about a devoted gynecologist in Dallas, well played by Richard Gere, takes much of its energy from enumerating the ways that most of the women in Dr. T’s upper-class orbit turn out to be basket cases: his patients, his wife (who has a nervous breakdown and regresses to her girlhood early in the picture), his receptionist, and at least one of his daughters (a closet lesbian about to get married). The most prominent exception is the golf pro he falls for (Helen Hunt), and though the film doesn’t quite fault her for her independence, it confusedly treats the hero’s desires as far more important than hers. Dallas is lampooned as glibly and creatively as Nashville was in the Altman film of that title, and the mise en scene and overlapping dialogue are both handled deftly. With Farrah Fawcett, Laura Dern, Shelley Long, Liv Tyler, and Kate Hudson. 122 min.… Read more »

Gimme Shelter

This grim 1970 film by David and Albert Maysles documents the Rolling Stones concert in Altamont, California, where one spectator was stabbed to death by the Hell’s Angels. It’s been widely applauded as a more truthful look at the counterculture than Woodstock offered earlier that year, but Woodstock is a great film and Gimme Shelter, despite some great Stones footage, is crippled by its rhetorical pretensions. As Dave Kehr wrote in his original Reader capsule, The film is a strong example of the cinema verite style at work, yet few films of the school show up the crisis of its ‘noninvolvement’ policy more tellingly. There is a horrible sense of helplessness as the Maysleses’ camera looks on while the Hell’s Angels stab an unruly fan to death, and the implications of hippie fascism contained in that image are not meaningfully developed in light of the film’s own excessive idolization of Jagger and company. The camera that looks up too easily looks down. 91 min. (JR)… Read more »

Smiling Fish And Goat On Fire

An affecting and offbeat American independent feature (1999), presented by Martin Scorsese, about two orphaned brothers, an accountant and a sometime actor (played by real brothers, Derick and Steven Martini), living on the fringes of Hollywood, sharing a house, and pursuing variable relationships. (The title refers to their Native American grandmother’s nicknames for them.) Though the outstanding presence and performance here comes from jazz singer Bill Henderson, as a former soundman for an Afro-American film company in the 40s, mourning the loss of his wife, all the players are resourceful and unpredictable, and the lively script and dialogue (by director Kevin Jordan and the two Martinis) gives them plenty to work with. With Christa Miller, Nicole Rae, Amy Hathaway, and Rosemarie Addeo. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »