Posts Tagged ‘retrospective’

The Piano (1993) | Re-Release

Dir.: Jane Campion; Cast: Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, Anna Paquin; New Zealand, Australia, France 1993; 121 min.

As a landmark in film history, few features can measure up with Jane Campion’s epic The Piano: in only her third outing (after many successful short films) as full-length motion picture writer/director, she tackled all: feminism, racism and above all, sexual relationships. She won an Oscar for Best Director, The Piano got the nod for Best Picture and most wondrous at all, she was the first  – and, 25 years later – still the only woman recipient of the Palme d’Or, albeit sharing it with Chen Kaige’s Farewell my Concubine. 

Scottish widow Ada (Hunter) has been traumatised by the death of husband, who was killed, standing next to her, by lightning. As a result, she has lost her voice. Her father marries her off to Stewart (Neill), a farmer, living in the jungle: he picked her from a mail order catalogue. Ada, a former opera-singer like her late husband, arrives at the unwelcoming beaches of mid-nineteen century New Zealand with daughter Anna (Paquin) and her price possession: the titular piano. Stewart does not care about the instrument, and leaves its transportation to his second in command, Baines (Keitel), a native of the country. Ada, withdrawn from reality, falls in love with Baines, after the latter makes it clear to him, that she is more than a sex object for him. Stewart, jealous and out of control, extracts bloody violence; promising more, if Ada is seeing Baines again. One of the main features is the role of Ada’s daughter Anna, who, whilst loving her mother, sides with Stewart: she yearns for a stable home. Like young Helene in Chabrol’s Les Noces Rouges, she inadvertently gives away the game, whilst intending to help her mother.

Sumptuously photographed by British cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (who collaborated with Campion on An Angel at my Table and The Portrait of a Lady), and  an eerie score by his compatriot Michael Nyman, The Piano seems head and shoulders about contemporary cinema. Alas, Jane Champion would never again be so brave and daring: apart from the Henry James adaption The Portrait of A Lady (1996) and the Keat’s bio-pic Bright Star (2009), both more sturdy than innovative, little can be said of her more recent output. It seems, like she was frightened by her own boldness – like a comet who bloomed to early and imploded. AS

ON RE-RELEASE IN ARTHOUSE CINEMAS  in CELEBRATION of its 25th Anniversary | | 16th July 2018

  

Hedy Lamarr – the Woman who invented Wifi

With the release of Alexandra’s Dean biopic: BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY, Richard Chatten looks back over the outstanding career of a Hollywood star with intellect as well as high octane chutzpah.
Far more people are likely today to heard of Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) than to have ever actually seen any of her movies. Already notorious for skinny-dipping and simulating orgasm in the Czech independent film Extase (1933), she remained popular tabloid fodder for the rest of her life, and in the thirties & forties was by common consent considered the most beautiful woman in the world.
Although her film career was over by the end of the fifties, her name has remained stubbornly familiar down the years; and 1966 in particular proved a busy year for her for all the wrong reasons. In January of that year she was arrested for shoplifting in Los Angeles – which served as the basis for a film by Andy Warhol that year called Hedy, with Mario Montez in the title role – and she then unsuccessfully sued to attempt to prevent the publication of a lurid ghost-written autobiography, Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman, condemning it as “fictional, false, vulgar, scandalous, libelous and obscene.”.
During the seventies her name remained well enough remembered for the villain in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974) to be named “Hedley Lamarr”; although that she was not amused is indicated by a $10 million lawsuit she filed against Warner Bros (who eventully settled out of court). Still more recently, Anne Hathaway studied Ms Lamarr’s films as preparation for her role as Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises (2012).
In 1997 came a revelation more remarkable than anything contained in Ecstasy and Me that with the avant-garde composer George Antheil she had developed a “frequency hopping” radio guidance system for torpedoes that they patented – she using her married name Hedy Kiesler Markey – on 11 August 1942. (When told that their idea had finally received public acknowledgement, the 82 year-old Lamarr barked “Well, it’s about time!”)
As an actress, Lamarr herself described herself as “a cross between Judy Garland and Greta Garbo”. By her own admission she had the reputation in Hollywood of being “difficult”, and her films were in the main a rum bunch – including the handful she produced herself – not helped by the fact that she turned down Casablanca and Gaslight. But in the past ten years she has received the accolade accorded few of her Hollywood contemporaries of two biographies, and now a feature-length documentary entitled Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (one of whose executive producers is Susan Sarandon) about to open in Britain.
Bombshell predictably doesn’t actually concern itself too much with her movies; so here are five that she made that are still worth a look:
Extase (Gustav Machatý, 1933). Largely shot silent with a synchronised music track, Extase can still be appreciated on its own terms as a fanciful continental art movie by the interesting Gustav Machatý (and can be enjoyed on YouTube). Shortly after making it, it’s 18 year-old star Hedwig Kiesler married a millionaire munitions manufacturer named Fritz Mandl who unsuccessfully attempted to buy up all the copies, but fortunately failed, and the film opened in New York in 1937; the same year she divorced Mandl and was signed up by MGM, who changed her name to Hedy Lamarr and excitedly promoted her as “the new Garbo”.
Algiers (John Cromwell, 1938). She started in Hollywood at the top co-starring with Charles Boyer in this lavish remake of Pepe le Moko (1936), which had starred Jean Gabin and Mireille Balin. It was both a critical and financial hit, and inspired the cartoon character Pepé le Pew; but unfortunately presently exists only in dreadful public domain prints, so few people today have actually seen it and the French original is more familiar today than the remake.
H.M.Pulham Esq. (King Vidor, 1941). As forgotten today as most of Lamarr’s other films – and ignored by Bombshell –  this adult, well-acted adaptation of John P. Marquand’s novel was the second of two films she made with the great King Vidor, and is probably her best. Both she and Robert Young in the title role give excellent performances, and the film deserves to be much better known.
Experiment Perilous (Jacques Tourneur, 1944). A gaslit Victorian melodrama set in London in 1903 containing her own personal favourite of her own performances, as a mysterious beauty being plotted against by her scheming and manipulative husband, played by Paul Lukas.
Samson and Delilah (Cecil B. DeMille, 1949). Hedy’s first film in Technicolor is a glorious piece of kitsch in which Angela Lansbury – who was 12 years her junior – plays her elder sister. The film is probably best remembered today for Groucho Marx’s response to DeMille at the premiere that “No picture can hold my interest where the leading man’s tits are bigger than the leading lady’s!”. But it was the top-grossing film of 1950. RICHARD CHATTEN
 
BOMBSHELL IS ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 9 MARCH 2018

Melancholy in classic cinema – 5 Melancholic Characters

RoccoFratelliPosterMelancholy: deep and impenetrable  sadness – a retrograde state of mind. The unknown and unseen past has swallowed up present and future. The heroes and heroines of melancholic films are  aware of this: from the moment they appear on the screen for the first time, we know it’s all over before a word is said. The ensuing narrative is just there to underline their fate: whilst choosing a new love, a new beginning, they really want to end it all. They are lovers of loss and being lost  – and we love them for it.

Luchino Visconti is a favourite director for one main reason: he was able to make successful movies in the neo-realist tradition (ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS (1960), as well as operatic masterpieces that were always anchored in the past, like THE LEOPARD (1963).

220px-Senso_PosterI could have easily chosen LUDWIG (1972) or L’innocente (1976) – but I went for SENSO (1954), because Alida Valli’s beautiful Countess Serpieri really wants to destroy herself – throwing everything away for an unscrupulous man – whose true character she knows the moment she sets eyes on him for the first time in a Venice theatre in 1866, whilst Italian patriots, fighting the Austrian occupying forces, throw leaflets from the balconies. In the ensuing fighting, Duke Ussoni, a leader of the rebels, hurts one of the Austrian soldiers, Lt. Franz Mahler (Farley Granger). To save Ussoni, Countess Serpieri, whose husband is fighting for the Austrians at the front, tries to talk Mahler out of making a formal complaint – only to fall madly in love with this most superficial, opportunistic coward. He soon asks the Countess for money, to buy himself out of the army. She obliges, stealing money from the fund of the rebels, which Ussoni had entrusted her with. But Mahler disappears, drinking and whoring the money away. When she finds him with another woman, she goes to the authorities, denounces him and watches his execution – only to go mad, shouting his name in the dark streets.

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In betraying her class and her country, she denounces herself and her past. Since Mahler never tried very hard to conceal his duplicity why does Serpieri want him so much; his good looks can’t be the only reason. The Countess does not love her husband, and sees him as a traitor: he has joined the rebels for romantic, not political reasons, hoping to escape her role in the aristocracy, which does not give her much personal freedom. At the same time, she wants to punish herself for her thoughts, and in eloping with Mahler, she commits the ultimate treason against herself. Alida Valli carries the film, floating through the attractive landscapes and palaces, always on the outlook for death, her death, whilst pretending to free herself via a love, which she only knows too well, does not exist. In the end she is executioner and victim: alive, but in a world by herself.

220px-La_sirène_du_MississippiSuperficially looked at, Francois Truffaut’s MISSISSIPPI MERMAID (LA SIRENE DU MISSISSIPPI) from 1969 is just another B-movie in colour. Based on the novel “Waltz into Darkness” by Cornel Woolrich (aka William Irish), whose “The Bride wore Black” Truffaut had filmed in 1967 with Jeanne Moreau in the title role. MERMAID (dedicated to Renoir) opens in Reunion, where Louis Mahe (J.P. Belmondo), a rich owner of a tobacco plantation, is expecting his mail order bride, Julie Roussel. But the woman who arrives at the pier is anything but the plain, straight Roussel: Marion Bergamo (Catherine Deneuve) is an outstanding beauty – and femme fatale. She and her co-conspirator have killed Roussel on the ship so Bergamo can marry Mahe – and his money. Like Serpieri in Senso, one look for Mahe is enough to fall in love with Marion. Even when she steals his money and disappears to Nice, where he follows her, his love is stronger than his resentment. Marion, whose partner in crime has taken all the money, is working in a bar, hotly pursued by a detective hired by Roussel’s sister. He finds the couple, and Mahe shoots him. On the run through the Swiss Alps, with his money running out, Marion tries to poison Mahe, but he still forgives her. His ‘amour fou’ knows no boundaries, as the couple stumbles through the snow into unknown future.

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Mermaid is a more contemporary version of THE BLUE ANGEL, where the ageing teacher Rath gives everything up for Dietrich’s Lola. But Rath returns in the end to his school, wanting to go back to his past, whilst Belmondo/Mahe takes his self destruction many steps further: he kills for Marion, gives her the rest of his money, is even ready to die by her own hand – he just wants to be with her. Love Colder than Death, ironically the title of Fassbinder’s first feature, is the Leitmotiv of Mermaid. Mahe is also in love with his masochism; he thrives in poverty more than in the splendour of his Reunion home. His loneliness is the key to his downfall: all the material grandeur of his wealth means nothing to him – he wants to be loved, by anyone. And since he has had no experience with women, he falls for the first one he meets. The attraction here again is not so much the attractiveness of the partner, but the way to an end she symbolises. She is ‘Lady Macbeth’, but he is much more than a willing slayer: he wants to die with her all the time, his will to live is much weaker than hers, with infuriates her; but in the end, she seems to capitulate to his meekness and self destructive love.

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220px-The_Soft_Skin_Poster Like with Visconti, there are any number of films by Truffaut I could have chosen to embody this theme. And since a real melancholic film should be in black and white, I have opted for LA PEU DOUCE from 1963. Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly) is the publisher of a small literary magazine in Paris. He is married to Franca (Nelly Benedetti), the couple has a daughter. Lachenay is rather self -centred and takes his family for granted, pursuing his career with great eagerness. On a flight to Lisbon he meets the much younger stewardess Nicole (Francoise Dorleac), and falls hopelessly in love with her. But as soon as he has conquered her, he becomes possessive. Nicole soon looses interest in him, his middle-aged seriousness and obsession with cultural niceties does not go well with her more carefree, but sensual personality. He wants to put her into a golden cage, shows her a flat he wants to buy for her. This is the last straw for Nichole, she tells him that she is leaving him. In a parallel montage after this rejection, we see Lachenay trying to phone his wife Franca, wanting to tell her that he will stay with her after all, but she has just left the house, and taken the car to drive to his favourite restaurant, where she shoots him. The last shot shows Franca sitting on the floor, looking up at her dead husband, smiling not ruefully, but rather like the cat who got the cream.

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Lachenay is, unlike Serpieri and Mahe, not hell bent on self-destruction. But he wants a new beginning, on his terms though: he does not want to scarify his bourgeois identity, which means putting his job first and staying in control. But he really loves Nicole, and by offering her a new home, he hopes to receive gratitude for raising her to his own level. But Nichole does not want material gratification, she wants to be loved for herself. Her interaction with the stray kitten in the provincial motel shows her as a pure person, who wants simple harmony and no trappings, materially or status wise. She wants to communicate direct, a free spirit of ’68. Unlike Lachenay, who uses telephones all the time to postpone meetings and decisions. But in spite of all, we feel for Lachenay, see him struggle with his sedateness, not so much like an old man, but like a little boy, aged before his time. In the end he is destroyed between two much stronger women: one young and down to earth, the other more of his own class, but much more decisive than himself. When we see him dead at his table, we feel pity, because the task of reconciling his old personality with his new love was simply too much for him. AS

AVAILABLE ON BLURAY/DVD AT AMAZON.CO.UK

The Absence of Love | Michelangelo Antonioni Retro

Humans are intruders in the film world of Michelangelo Antonioni: they destroy the harmony of nature and society. Only in a few cases, when they act in solidarity with others, do they have a chance to become part of something whole.

Antonioni grew up in Ferrara in the Po Valley not far from the setting of his documentary short GENTE DEL PO (1943-47). Visconti was in the throws of filming Ossessione nearby. Despite its neo-realistic moorings, this is a personal statement: an effort to interpret the world via the moving image, rather than the other way round. Antonioni’s realism is not to show anything natural, humane or  dramatic, and particularly not anything like an idea, a thesis. Memory alone forms the model for his art. Memory in the form of images: photos, paintings, writing – they form the basis of his later work – an adventure, where the audience peels off the many layers, like off an onion: a painting, more than once painted over.

Antonioni was already 38 when he made his drama debut with Cronaca Du Un Amore (1950)  Superficially a film noir, in the mood of Visconti’s first opus Ossessione, this expressed the overriding existential angst, loneliness and alienation that would permeate his work. Paola and Guido grew up in the same neighbourhood in Ferrara, and want to do away with Paola’s rich husband Enrico Fontana. This is no crime of passion, because Paola and Guido are unable to love, or even imagine a life together –  but they both stand to profit from Fontana’s death. And the city of Milan is much more than a background: life here is a reflection of the state of mind of the conspirators: like a drug, the street life full of chaos, the neurotic atmosphere in the cafes. All this is unreal, jungle like: modern urbanity as hell, a central topic of Antonioni’s opus. And he observes his main protagonists often, when they are alone, not only in dramatic scenes. This way, he creates an elliptical structure, with two combustion points: action and echo. As Wenders said: “The strength of the American Cinema is a forward focus, European cinema paints ellipses”.

I VINTI (1952) is set in three different countries (Italy, France and the UK), and tells the stories of youthful perpetrators, who commit their crimes not out of material necessity, but just for fun. Even though the crimes are central, Antonioni is not much interested in the structure of the genre. The police work is secondary, as are the criminals themselves: Antonioni is fascinated with the daily life of his protagonists, the crimes are more and more forgotten, the investigations peter out – shades of L’ Avventura and Blow Up.

In LE AMICHE (1955) Antonioni finds the structure for his features, seemingly overpopulated with couples and friends – who are all busy, but play a secondary role to their environment, in this case Turin. Clelia who comes to Turin, to open a designer shop for clothes, falls in with four other young women, all of them much wealthier than she is. Their changing couplings with men end tragically. Set between Clelia’s arrival in Turin and her leaving for Rome, LE AMICHE is a kaleidoscope of human frailty, in which the audience is waiting for something to happen, some sort of story of boy meets girl story, but when something like it really happens, it is so secondary, so much overlaid by all the small details we have learned before, that we are as dislocated as the characters: we flounder because Antonioni does not tell a story with a beginning and an end (however much we pretend), but he tells us, that the world can exist without stories. Because there is so much more to see in the city of Turin, as there will be in Rome: Clelia is only the messenger, send out by Antonioni to be a traveller, not a story teller. In so far, she is his archetypal heroine.

Aldo, the central protagonist in IL GRIDO (1956/7) is the most untypical of all Antonioni heroes: he has been expelled from paradise, after his wife left him. His travels are romantic, because he does not let himself go, but sticks to his environment, travelling with his daughter in the Po delta. Whilst looking back on his village, towered over by the factory chimney, it is his past history, which forces him to leave. He becomes more and more marginalised: an outsider, even when living near the river in a derelict hut, he becomes the victim of the environment, of the background of landscape, seasons and the history of his live, spent all here. El Grido ends tragically, because Aldo (unlike most other Antonioni heroes) insists on keeping to his past: he does not want to cross the bridges, which are metaphorically there to be crossed. And Aldo’s titular outcry becomes a good-bye, even though he is back home. Il Grido is also Antonioni’s return to neo-realism, another contradiction, because he never really was part of it.

 

L’AVVENTURA (1960) has four main protagonists, three of them humans, but they are dwarfed by Lisca Bianca, a rocky island in the Mediterranean See. A group of wealthy Italians visit the island but when they want to leave, the main character Anna, is missing. Her boyfriend Sandro starts the search, but is soon more interested in Claudia, Anna’s best friend. When they all leave, without having found Anna, Claudia and Sandro are ready to start a new life together. Antonioni is often compared with Brecht. Like the German playwright, he refuses the dramatization of the narrative, because it is a remnant of the bourgeois theatre. Analogue to this comparison, L’Avventura is epic cinema. Brecht’s plays are often transparent, because the actors do not identify with their roles. The audience is not drawn into the play, but left outside to observe. The same goes for Antonioni, because, as Doniol-Valcroze wrote “to direct is to organise time and environment”. Antonioni genius is, that he first introduces time scale and environment, before he develops the narrative, via the actions and words of the protagonists. The breakers on the island, are the real music of the feature. The fragility of the emotions manifests it selves mainly in the way the protagonists talk –  but mostly they are on cross purpose. Yet the overall impression is not that of a modern film with sound, but of a very sad silent movie. At Cannes in 1960, the feature was mercilessly jeered at the premiere, but won the Grand Prix nevertheless – a rarity of the jury being ahead of the public.

 

In LA NOTTE (1960) we observe twenty-four hours in the live of the writer Giovanni and his wife Lydia. Whilst their friend dies in a hospital, they have to accept that their love has been dead for a while. Antonioni uses his characters like figures on a chess board. They are real, but at the same time ghosts. He does not tell their story, but follows their movements from one place to an another. There is no interconnection between them and their environment. They have lost the feeling for themselves, others and the outside. Their world is cold and threatening. Antonioni offers no irony or pity. He is the surgeon at the operating table, and his view is that of the camera: mostly skewed over-head shots. It is impossible to love La Notte. Whilst Antonioni is the first director of the modern era, he is also its most vicious critic.

 

When L’ECLISSE (1962) starts in the morning, it feels somehow like a continuation of La Notte. Before Vittoria (Vitti) ends her relationship with Francisco, she arranges a new Stilleben behind an empty picture frame. Next stop is Piero (Delon), a stockbroker. Vittoria is like Wenders’ Alice in the City: a child in a world of grown ups, repelled by their emotional coldness. Piero, very much a child of this world, is all calculations and superficiality, his friend’s remark “long live the façade” sums it all up. Long panorama shots show very little empathy with the eternal city, particularly the shots without much noise (music only sets in after the half-way point of the film), are representative of a ghost town populated by little worker ants, dwarfed by the huge buildings. The couple’s last rendezvous is symbolic for everything Antonioni ever wanted to show us: none of the two shows up, we watch the space where they were supposed to meet for several minutes. L’Eclisse will lead without much transition to Deserto Rosso, where Monica Vitti is Guiliana, wandering the streets, getting lost in a fog on a very unlovable planet.

 

DESERTO ROSSO (1963/4)

 

Guiliana: “I dreamt, I was laying in my bed, and the bed was moving. And when I looked, I saw that I was sinking in quicksand”. Guiliana’s world is threatening, everything is monstrous, the buildings of an industrious estate are unbelievable tall. The machines in the factories, the steel island in the sea, and the silhouettes of the people surrounding her are enclosing around her. We travel with her from this industrial quarter of Ravenna to Ferrara and Medicina. She is never still, only at the end she is standing still in front of a factory gate. In Deserto Rosso objects become blurred, they seem to be alive, making their way independently. The camera never leaves Guiliana during her nightmare. We see the world through Guiliana’s eyes: “It is, as if I had tears in my eyes”. In the room of his son she sees his toy robot, his eyes alight. She switches it off – but this the only activity she is allowed to master successfully. There is always fog between her and everybody else, even her lover Corrado is “on the other side”. And the fable, which she tells her son Vittorio, who cannot move, before he is suddenly running through the room, lacks anything metaphysical. Roland Barthes called Antonioni “the artist of the body, the opposite of others, who are the priests of art”. For once, Antonioni is one with the body of his protagonist: Guiliana’s body is not one of the many others, she will never get lost.

 

BLOW UP (1966)

 

A feature one should only see once – never again. Otherwise one will suffer the same as Thomas photos: Blow Up. Antonioni to Moravia: “All my films before are works of intuition, this one is a work of the head.” Everything is calculated, the incidents are planned, the story is driven by an elaborate design. The drama, which is anything but, is a drama perfectly executed. Herbie Hancock, the Yardbirds, the beat clubs, the marihuana parties, Big Ben and the sports car with radiophone, the Arabs and the nuns, the beatniks on the streets: everything is like swinging London in the 1960ies: a head idea. Blow Up is Antonioni’s most successful feature at the box office – and not one of his best.

 

 

 

 

ZABRISKIE POINT (1969/70)

 

Given Cart Blanche by MGM, Antonioni produced a feature in praise of the American Cinema. Zabriskie Point is the birth of the American Cinema from the valley of the Death. Antonioni has to repeat this dream for himself. But he had to invent his own Mount Rushmore, his Monument Valley, to make a film about this country in his own image. A car and a plane meet in the desert. The woman driver and the pilot recognise each other immediately. The copulation in the sand is metaphor for the simultainacy of the act, when longing and fulfilment, greed and satisfaction are superimposed. Then the unbelievable total destruction: the end of civilisation; Antonioni synchronises both events, a miracle of topography and choreography. This is Antonioni’s dream: the birth of a poem.

 

Both, the TV feature MISTERO Di OBERWLAD (1979) nor IDENTIFICAZIONE DI UNA DONNA (1982) have in any way added something to Antonioni’s masterful oeuvre. The same can be said of his work after he suffered a massive stroke in 1985, leaving him without speech partly paralysation: BEYOND THE CLOUDS (1995), a collaboration with Wim Wenders, and Antonioni’s segment of EROS (2004). AS

A RETROSPECTIVE TAKING PLACE AT  THE BFI EARLY IN 2019

 

 

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