Looking back at 2012 on what films moved and impressed us, it is clear that watching old films is a crucial part of making new films meaningful. Thus, the annual tradition of our end of year poll, which calls upon our writers to pick both a new and an old film: they were challenged to choose a new film they saw in 2012—in theaters or at a festival—and creatively pair it with an old film they also saw in 2012 to create a unique double feature.
All the contributors were asked to write a paragraph explaining their 2012 fantasy double feature. What's more, each writer was given the option to list more pairings, with or without explanation, as further imaginative film programming we'd be lucky to catch in that perfect world we know doesn't exist but can keep dreaming of every time we go to the movies.
How would you program some of 2012's most interesting films into double features with movies of the past?
Celluloid Liberation Front
Fernando F. Croce
The Ferroni Brigade
Ryland Walker Knight
R. Emmet Sweeney
C. Mason Wells
NEW: differently, Molussia (Nicolas Rey, 2012)
OLD: Trás-os-Montes (António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro, 1976)
WHY: One subset among cinema's myriad powers involves the ability to organize the act of looking in a certain way: look beyond, look deeper, look differently, see something novel, see something novelly. For films with a profound and deliberate formal attachment to landscape and/or civilized spaces (let's start by mentioning Chris Welsby, Michael Snow, Abbas Kiarostami, and John Gianvito's Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind), the work in question often involves a process in which viewers are invited to consider physical space and duration in highly embodied or kinaesthetic terms. It takes a particular amount of time to watch one of Kiarostami's actors cross over some hills, for instance, and an upward step takes on a kind of weight that we're likely to ignore in most films. In cinematic examples like these, we might see something for the first time and yet we are simultaneously, immediately commissioned to question just what it is we see. It's as though these films are puzzles about the lived history of these spaces. I saw these two films for the first time in 2012 and found it impossible to distinguish between seeing a new landscape (the terrain and inhabited spaces of “Molussia” and Trás-os-Montes) and feeling a sense of something hidden, something to be uncovered. In other words both of these films of landscape, buildings, and quasi-characters convey political sentiments through mysterious, indirect, yet powerful means. Rey's aleatory project of translation (nine reels in random order, loosely adapting a book he had not actually read) builds a critique of totalitarianism into imagery of rolling fields and industrial zones. It's as if the very ground beneath one's feet might even produce such threats. Meanwhile, Reis and Cordeiro's journey into a remote region of Portugal produced a similar study of lives in a very specific space across a range of particular historical moments. What remains there but snow, sunlight, icicles, hills, rocks, trees, dirt paths beaten by footfalls over millennia? It would be facile to categorize these approaches as ahistorical, when they are perhaps more accurately described as trans-historical. For me these two films slyly, efficiently revitalize one's fundamental sense of the world.
NEW: Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, Canada)
OLD: A King in New York (Charles Chaplin, 1957)
WHY: The multiple and multiplying sclerosis of western civilization BC (before capitalism) and AC (after capitalism) in a complementary double bill illustrating its modern incarnation and post-capitalist death. In A King in New York (1957) Charlie Chaplin pokes fun at the encroaching scourge of advertising in an America brainwashed by the mass hysteria of McCarthyism. Humour, sentimentality and drama, for Chaplin, would oppose the staged homologation of consumer culture. In Cosmopolis (2012) Cronenberg shows how all of the above has been co-opted, digested and neutralized by the abstract forces of late capitalism. In Chaplin there still exists a binary opposition between inhumanity and humanity, values and lack thereof, ideals and cynical indifference. In Cronenberg any dualism has collapsed, meaning like monetary value is the random outcome of inscrutable algorithms; “reality” is an immanent desert of feelings as figurative as a Rothko’s canvas.
NEW: Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France)
OLD: L'oiel du malin (Claude Chabrol, 1962)
WHY: My double feature showcases two films that I least expected, but most wanted to see this year, and as such, are effectively linked as films of my dreams.
L’oiel du malin has been almost impossible to view for years and remains unknown to most, while Holy Motors is being amply seen and reviewed, as unlikely as that seems. The 1962 Chabrol film, strangely forgotten, at least in the U.S., is one of his most outstanding. In every director’s oeuvre there’s a film that most resembles you. I am L’oeil du malin, the way someone else is Le boucher or Les biches. From the voyeuristic camera movements of bright, guilty exteriors and angles perspectives, to the strangled excitement of its maniacal narrator, everything seems to evoke a familiar interior landscape all my own. The “evil eye” of the film, then, is a perfectly constructed stream of consciousness like that of a Patricia Highsmith or Jim Thompson novel, not only graphically describing the efforts of the film’s dashing madman to bring those around him under his sickly control, but evoking, as Michael O’Hara would say, “the pain of just being alive.” Chabrol’s film succeeds at “achieving the aura of violent, fatal complicity which links all of his characters and which makes the films finally, not case histories of aberrant others, but memories of ourselves.”*
Like a mashup of fiendish plots perpetrated by Georges Franju’s Shadowman, Holy Motors has cast a spell over me. I’m still wondering if I dreamt its reception at Cannes and everything since. Carax’s work has always exerted a strong influence. Boy Meets Girl bewitched and bewildered me during a first viewing in the 80s on Bravo. Missing Mauvias sang screening on a double-bill with Contempt a few years later, I was so overwhelmed by a friend’s intense shot by shot description of it afterwards that I “borrowed” the 16mm print from a campus film group to watch while I video- taped it off the wall. Hundreds of feverish viewings followed. I immediately quit my job after seeing Les amants du Pont-Neuf, then saw Pola X without subtitles, an experience which caused distraught wanderings late into the night along the streets of Paris with my partner. If Holy Motors impresses like a magic trick, it’s in a spirit of play and imagination that has been largely absent from the cinema of recent past. The film’s surreal effect is achieved by its slightness. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as are special effects. Carax's film is a loving lament, a pop poem just big enough to include an unlikely chorus of James Bond, Quatermass, Godzilla, Spiderman, and Fantomas.
*James Monaco, “The New Wave”
NEW: The Extravagant Shadows (David Gatten, USA)
OLD: Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette, 1974)
NEW: The Comedy (Rick Alverson,USA) + OLD: The Boys from Fengkuei (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1983)
NEW: Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, USA) + OLD: Track of the Cat (William A. Wellman, 1954)
NEW: You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet! (Alain Resnais, France) + OLD: Duck Amuck (Chuck Jones, 1953)
NEW: Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, USA) + OLD: The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937)
NEW: Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Véréna Paravel , USA) + OLD: Gummo (Harmony Korine, 1997)
NEW: This Is 40 (Judd Apatow, USA) + OLD: Film for Invisible Ink, case no. 323: ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (David Gatten, 2010)
NEW: Point de Gaze (Jodie Mack, USA) + OLD: Breathless (Jim McBride, 1983)
NEW: The Great Cinema Party (Raya Martin, Philippines) + OLD: <-> (Michael Snow, 1969)
NEW: Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico) + OLD: Lemon (Hollis Frampton, 1969)
+ One multimedia pick:
NEW: Holy Motors (Leos Carax) + NEW: The Flame Alphabet (Ben Marcus)
NEW: Three Sisters (Wang Bing, China)
OLD: My Neighbour Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)
WHY: Coincidentally, my favourite film and favourite retrospective rediscovery of 2012 find common ground in their main characters: young sisters dealing with reality. In My Neighbour Totoro, Miyazaki shows how two sisters retreat into their imagination to deal with external changes: a sick mother, a move to the countryside. In Three Sisters, Wang Bing shows us three sisters entirely of their harsh environment, struggling with dire living conditions day in and day out. They are opposite ends of the spectrum, but both films are profound portraits of sisterhood and testaments to the sheer fascination of the human being and the coping strategies of children.
NEW: Amour (Michael Haneke) + OLD: Begotten (E. Elias Merhige, 1990). WHY: (Not a favourite viewing). Two films committed to depictions of on screen suffering that attest to the cinema viewer's desire to see bad things come to people they don't know. But Begotten's imagery traps the viewer in their own curiosity; Amour is sadism with arthouse posturing, trapping the viewer in yet another of Haneke's lessons.
NEW: End of Watch (David Ayer, USA)
OLD: Night Nurse (William Wellman, USA, 1931)
WHY: Two films I saw this year, made 81 years apart, burst into action almost identically with a camera attached to the front of a vehicle barreling through city streets and back alleys. In William A. Wellman's Night Nurse the word Ambulance, read backwards, is emblazoned across both windscreen and cinema screen as it careens towards the hospital; in David Ayer's End of Watch the digital readout of an LAPD issue dashboard cam is visible throughout an extended car chase. In the Wellman the sequence is one long continuous shot; in the newer film, if I remember rightly, it's a much longer sequence of jump cuts. And both are considerable feats of stunt driving. The Wellman series at Film Forum was one of the highlights of the filmgoing year, but End of Watch I'd gone to on a whim, and this Wellmanesque opening immediately promised great things. Promises it didn't completely fulfill, alas, nor did it sustain the integrity of its shot-on-video-by-its-protagonists modus operandi. But the two films do have more in common than just their opening. Both feature a couple of neophytes (Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell as rookie nurses, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as young beat cops) trying to make their way in an institution that frequently stymies them. And both films seem to be happily proceeding as behind-the-scenes procedurals—peppered with salt-of-the-earth innuendo—until our ordinary joes and joans stumble across a dangerous conspiracy, each involving drugs and kidnapped children, among other things, that they would have been best to avoid. The trailer for Night Nurse teases "The Things They Know… The Things They See… The Things They Do," which could easily have been the tagline for End of Watch. But only one of these films features a jackbooted Clark Gable.
NEW: Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, USA)
OLD: Whity (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971)
WHY: A nation’s warping “cash for flesh business” demolished in whirlwind Westerns: one a fireworks display of squirting squibs and the other a removal of diseased greasepaint, two Germanic paths to the grand old mansion finally littered with corpses.
Also: NEW: The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA) + OLD: Othello (Orson Welles, 1952); NEW: Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal) + OLD: Les anges du péché (Robert Bresson, 1943); NEW: O som ao redor (Kleber Mendonça Filho, Brazil) + OLD:They Came from Within (David Cronenberg, 1975); NEW: Killer Joe (William Friedkin, USA) + OLD: Teorema (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968); NEW: Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, USA) + OLD: Man Hunt (Fritz Lang, 1941); NEW: Bella addormentata (Marco Bellocchio, Italy) + OLD: Juste avant la nuit (Claude Chabrol, 1971)
NEW: Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)
OLD: Bonjour Tristesse (Otto Preminger, 1958)
WHY: Preminger's 'Scope and Technicolor vision of the beginning, his taut, ambivalent hint at a weary end, and the matte white and charcoal of his images of the middle—Bonjour Tristesse is a seeing and hearing private history of the head, a picture that ambulates willfully beneath Jean Seberg's hushed monaural talking track until image and voiceover seem to decouple and free associate. Like Gomes, Preminger's is an imagination fileted by the salience and unimpeachably eternal recurrence of his characters' pasts, although the approaches are distinct: in Bonjour Tristesse, memories—or past experiences, or personal histories—reside principally in the mind, although always with the trappings of cinema (hence the switch from black and white and color and back again, the use of voiceover narration, the wideness of the aspect ratio, etc.). Tabu responds by placing the mind in history, a disembodied, roving cinematograph with limited access to the past (hence Gomes' decision to eliminate the dialogue track from the second half of the film, presenting his characters obliquely, as though we're asked to watch from the opposite side of a window). Both work alchemically, by games of psychic hide and seek that have the grace and the intelligence and the feeling to turn memory into matter.
Johnnie To's Du Zhan - 毒戰 (Drug War), which premiered last November at the Roma International Film Festival, is his first film produced and shot by/in continental China. Looking with bitter irony at the fight between hard-boiled policemen and drug traffic modern entrepreneurs, combining in its intricate editing themes of survival at all costs and of betrayal, Johnnie To creates out of its continental locations a filmic landscape that shows better than any scenario how China is one—in wild entrepreneurship and violence. No "frontier" anymore, no Hong Kong nor Tianjin, just forms of war, and landscapes redesigned for newbattles. And even if Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch cannot be said a 2012 new re-release, the two films may well have the same capacity to write "a history of violence." And if you want an idea of the grand finale of Drug War, watch again the final shootout of Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch:
Johnnie To's trailer can be found here:
NEW: Après mai (Olivier Assayas, France)
OLD: Nothing but a Man (Michael Roemer, 1964)
WHY: Here we find two character studies pivoting on historical change—the precipitous moment of dreaming and backlash during the Civil Rights era in Nothing but a Man; and the hazy, ideologically dispersive years in the shadow of 1968 in Apès mai. Clichés of the social problem picture and coming of age story come unbound in the filmmakers’ obsessive drive to express the sounds, spaces, gestures, and styles of speech that color a time and place. Assayas’s ever-widening bildungsroman is necessarily retrospective and, in spite of its autobiographical bent, somewhat more detached than Roemer’s debut, which takes history in medias res but at a significant cultural remove. Roemer, who fled Nazi Germany as a boy, prepared for Nothing but a Man as if for a documentary, traveling the Deep South for months with cinematographer Robert Young. We don’t see a white face for the first third of the film and then only a hand reaching into Duff (Ivan Dixon) and Josie’s (Abbey Lincoln) parked car—a breach of both their privacy and the film’s extraordinary intimacy. The quiet patience of Roemer’s dramatization of injustice is all the more astonishing in light of the historical context (this was the year of King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the murder of Medgar Evers, and the bombing of a Baptish church in Birmingham). The film holds steady in its commitment to the tangibles of individual experience, casting the southern dream of freedom into fresh relief as a matter of personal resilience and domestic struggle. Assayas’s comically indecisive cipher eventually relinquishes the idea of creating himself in the image of political action, but his turn towards filmmaking doesn’t resolve the dialectics of art, politics, and romance which pattern the film. Assayas is too invested in the ill-defined nature of the era to allow for this impression, instead suffusing the film with enough dead-end polemics, solitary reveries, idiosyncratic totems, and fading heartbreaks to restore the past to latency, something like a bruise.
NEW: "EMPIRE" (Phil Solomon, USA)
OLD: Empire (Andy Warhol, 1964) + empire 24/7 (Wolfgang Staehle, 1999-2004)
WHY: Like Staehle's empire 24/7, Phil Solomon's "Empire" is a revisionist adaptation of Andy Warhol's 1964 eight-hour exercise in long-take endurance and in extremis direct cinema. Staehle's work remakes Warhol's film using a live-feed of streaming online video, simulating a surveillant gaze or a kind of closed-circuit realism. By contrast, Solomon's work achieves similar results by simulating Warhol's document entirely within the virtual New York City (a.k.a. Liberty City) of Grand Theft Auto IV, appropriating game-space as a kind of video game heterotopia of alternate temporalities, virtual perspectives, and impossible physics (including supernatural weather patterns and moon-phases). Each work captures the same image in clearly distinct media, but what unites the three is the way in which each foregrounds not the technological apparatus itself, but rather the very everydayness of their mechanized gazes. In both Solomon's and Staehle's remakes, the materiality and technological innovations of the digital interfaces themselves seem less important than the ways in which the digital interface has, in a way, becomes invisible, either hidden within an infrastructure of surveillance and control or seamlessly integrated into our patterns of everyday consumption of and interaction with networked social environments. Solomon's work goes one step further in enveloping us in an unlikely, but no less heartbreaking, digital sublime.
NEW: People's Park (J.P. Sniadecki & Libbie Dina Cohn, USA) + OLD: Powers of Ten (Charles & Ray Eames, 1977) WHY: Horizontal and vertical; intensive and extensive; sense and exponents.
NEW: Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Véréna Paravel, USA) + OLD: Palace of Error (Tony Conrad, 1982/2011) WHY: Against representation, against metaphor.
NEW: A Burning Hot Summer (Philippe Garrel, France, 2011) + OLD: Bonjour Tristesse (Otto Preminger, 1958)
NEW: The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry, USA, 2011) + OLD: Love Streams (John Cassavetes, 1984)
NEW: The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, UK, 2011) + OLD: Gertrud (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1964)
NEW: The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA)
OLD: Island of Lost Souls (Erle C. Kenton, 1932)
WHY: It's odd the links that spring up in a year of cinephilia, because here, on the same cultural buffet table, we have two movies from the opposite ends of the respectability scale. The Master is a film that declares its aspirations from the mountaintop, while the chief attractions of Island of Lost Souls, a horrific gem of pre-Code Hollywood, are Bela Lugosi in an animal mask, Charles Laughton with a whip, and a slinky temptress listed in the opening credits only as "the Panther Woman." To go further, The Master marks the sixth film of Paul Thomas Anderson, who, whether you're with him or not, is undeniably one of the most ambitious, well-regarded, and auteur-ish auteurs of his generation. Lost Souls was directed by Erle C. Kenton, an obscure studio man who churned out about three films a year and who, outside of Lost Souls, is probably best known for a handful of esoteric Dracula, Frankenstein, and Abbott & Costello sequels in the 40s.
So it may seem strange that throughout the formal experiments and psychosexual struggles of The Master, I thought of a pre-Code horror movie I'd seen many months before. But the similarities are inescapable. After all, aren't both about portly, sinister, dubiously-accredited "doctors" who promise to purge the characters of their animal tendencies? Wouldn't Lancaster Dodd's insistence that "man is not an animal" sound at home coming from Laughton's Dr. Moreau? And so we can see two approaches to the same thematic territory: a battle between an untrustworthy ego and a raging id, with a pointed emphasis on sex. Taken together, they provide a comparison between "high-brow" and "low-brow" film (or "auteur" and "genre" cinema) that ultimately makes a compelling case study on how useless those labels can be. Of course, the two films arrive at different conclusions. In The Master, the id (a volatile Joaquin Phoenix) is sublimated and made fit for life among the civilized; in Lost Souls, which doesn't intellectualize its battle, the animal tendencies rebel with frightening, cathartic joy. So while The Master is one of my favorites of the year—a wondrously crafted film that I'll defend against its detractors—there's an argument to be made that a film like Island of Lost Souls, knowingly tawdry and scarcely longer than an episode of The Wire, is slier and more subversive. Lessons of cinema.
NEW: Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, USA) + OLD: French Cancan (Jean Renoir, 1954). A pair of wonderful comedies about life and art and theater, set in colorful worlds of varying unreality and capped with exquisite endings. Tonally, the films seem perfectly in sync—and Anderson, like the old master, revels generously in the act of creating characters and seeing how they turn out.
NEW: Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, USA) + OLD: The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928). WHY: From the cusp of one economic crisis and the middle of another come two odes to being "unexceptional" in a culture that so heavily values the idea of exceptionalism.
NEW: Bernie (Richard Linklater, USA.) + OLD: Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945). WHY: A double bill of short and sweet crime films about men who get in way too deep, and hopefully the pairing would show that Bernie is actually a strange kind of noir, and that Detour was always a strange kind of comedy.
NEW: Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, UK) + OLD: The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1928). WHY: Two films of a near-constant gale—though oddly, I can hear The Wind more clearly in my head, even though it's a silent film. In both, the overwhelming wilderness mingles with sexuality (raw for Arnold, surreal for Sjöström) and dwarfs its characters against landscapes that are all the more beautiful for being so harsh.
NEW: Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, USA)
OLD: The End (Christopher Maclaine, 1953)
WHY: Barring something unexpected, Magic Mike will be the only commercially-released film this year I’ve gone out and seen “the way it’s meant to be seen.” It used to be I’d get pulled out of the house a good handful of times, but not even the likes of Andersons Wes and Paul Thomas could get me to the theater. The backlog of unwatched discs, digital files, and streaming queues excites and entices much more than any current or upcoming release. We’ve come to the point where we no longer have to go to the movies. The movies come to us. And given my druthers, I lean towards the lazy side. So will “the male stripper movie” be the last I see on the big screen? Be with me next time for “The Cineplex’s Curtain Call” or “Phone-Wielding Patrons a-Go-Go.” (I made use of Maclaine's film mostly for its title: my memory of it is rather hazy despite only seeing it a handful of months ago, so including it gives me an opportunity to give it what it's owed, another viewing.)
NEW: Hurricane Sandy + OLD: Death in the Land of Encantos (Lav Diaz, 2007). WHY: An odd moment of confluence: alternating watching a portion of Diaz’s film with following the storm as it hit via Twitter.
NEW: Pavilion (Tim Sutton, USA)
OLD: Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007)
WHY: I hadn't seen a Judd Apatow production before this year and, for whatever reason, when I decided to begin stuffing the gap, Superbad came up first. (For what it's worth, it was enough of a kick to prod me to carry on, even if I'm not in any particular hurry; Knocked Up is indeed as problematic as everyone says it is, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is weak, though it has its winning moments, but Funny People is the standout, a major American comedy about, among other things, comedy in America.) To watch the Superbad gag reel, particularly the improvisations of the ever-quick Jonah Hill, is to see the rhythm track being laid down for my Twitter feed, to hear the cadences of contemporary American conversation codified. Superbad is sheer panic from beginning to end, a world in which there is no longer any such thing as time. The American teens of Tim Sutton's lovely debut Pavilion, on the other hand, have all the time in the world. Adulthood does not loom here, even though, as in Superbad, there is a shift from one phase to the next. Loss is met with sweet melancholy rather than hysterical alarm. The juxtaposition is a reminder of just how separate parallel universes can be in the same milieu.
NEW: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
OLD: Death in the Garden (Luis Buñuel, 1956)
WHY: 2012 was the year I discovered Buñuel's Mexican films. My favorite of the lot, Death in the Garden, is, like Ceylan's masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, a genre-bending study of faith and love, violence and betrayal, history and authority. Until I pulled these two screen captures, I hadn't thought about Muhammet Uzuner's doctor and Michel Piccoli's priest in relation to one another, but each serves as a kind of faltering moral center in their respective stories—one a Scientist, the other a Believer, both still questioning and searching. (Tarkovsky's shadow still looms large over Ceylan.) Several years ago I heard Theo Angelopoulos describe Weeping Meadow as a film about "the human condition." He could get away with making such a simple, potentially-pretentious declaration because he was Theo Angelopoulos, after all, and because the film proved the point. This double feature would likewise offer a grand portrait of the human condition, I think—one told in contrasting styles but with a common coarseness, wit, and sympathy. I'd recommend beginning it in the late afternoon, a Buñuel martini in hand.
NEW: The Master (Paul Thomas Andeson, USA)
OLD: The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946) + Let There Be Light (John Huston, 1946)
WHY: The Master is a rare film in many ways, and one of its most unusual and unexpected achievements is the creation of a world that accurately reflects the tone of life in mid-century America, with its peculiar ambitions, common physical and verbal vocabularies, and horizon line of dreams and aspirations. As often happens, the ambitions of the film are woven into the inner lives of its characters and evoked, consciously or not, in its dialogue (i.e. Laura Dern’s talk to adepts of The Cause about the different “feel” of earlier moments in history). Most films about the past, no matter how meticulously wrought, either seek out, or resort to, some means of tipping their hands to audiences of the present. Such is not the case with P.T. Anderson’s film, and I think that this accounts for the puzzled reactions of some viewers.
I’d like to see The Master on a double bill with a film that came out of the moment it depicts, a rare film that catches the anxieties and uncertainties and unarticulated longings of that moment. The Best Years of Our Lives was once one of the most lauded and enshrined films in the history of American cinema, so much so that it enjoyed a decades-long backlash. Only now that it has collected several layers of dust on the shelf of “officially recognized classics” has the backlash abated. The title may appear to signal triumph (Mackinlay Kantor, the author of “Glory for Me,” the poem on which the film was based, was furious over the change), but the film itself is a different story—actually, three different stories that, like the story of The Master, are short on incident and long on close human detail. Every time I watch Wyler’s film, the experience deepens, and the possible futures of its characters become increasingly vivid. I have always thought that Fredric March’s husband might just get up from his job at the bank one day, hop on a bus to San Francisco, cross paths with Corso, Brakhage, and Kerouac and maybe make a cameo appearance in Christopher MacLaine’s The End. And I can just as easily imagine Dana Andrews’ ex-flyer joining up with The Cause.
At the risk of programming a long night at the movies, how about inserting John Huston’s Let There Be Light between the Wyler and the Anderson? Huston’s documentary study of psychically damaged WWII vets (actually, a mix of interviews, recreations and staged scenes of daily life in a psychiatric hospital), commissioned and subsequently banned by the army, was an inspiration for Anderson. In fact, it was also an inspiration for an upcoming film, Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy Picard, in which I’m proud to have been involved.
NEW: You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet (Alain Resnais, France)
OLD: Bon Voyage (Alfred Hitchcock, 1944)
WHY: For me, Resnais is the most Hitchcockian director, but it wasn't until I saw Hitch's wartime short propaganda piece that not only form but the union of form and theme connected the two filmmakers so clearly for me. The 1944 film is about malleable, refreshable, recontextualized, reconfigured storytelling both in life—making a narrative out of events one experiences, one remembers and/or misremembers—and in cinema. And darned if Renais's latest masterpiece doesn't go over the same ground, refreshed, in its own way.
NEW: For Love's Sake (Takashi Miike, 2012) + OLD: The 15-Year-Old Widows (Jean Rouch, 1965) WHY: Two radically different portraits of contemporary teenage culture, concerns, conflicts. Extreme artifice (violent, songful) vs. supposedly a documentary (sweet, light-filled), but most definitely neither is precisely one or the another. And what if they were closer to the same thing than they initially think?
NEW: The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, UK, 2011) + OLD: The Painted Lady (D.W. Griffith, 1912) WHY: Women vs. mise en scène, tragedy and trauma wrought by men and male filmmakers taken to the form of films. The Griffith was a huge discovery for me this year; the Davies, my favorite new film.
NEW: Departure (Ernie Gehr, USA) + OLD: The Man with the Hispano Car (Jean Epstein, 1933) WHY: Speed mobiles 100% of their times.
NEW: Flight (Robert Zemeckis, USA) + OLD: Central Airport (William A. Wellman, 1933) WHY: An obvious one, this: aviation and the personal and bodily toll the passion / skill takes on pilots. Also, a look at the way conventional Hollywood genre filmmaking has changed over eighty years.
NEW: Motorway (Soi Cheang, 2012) + OLD: Cinema 1. Speed (Edgar Reitz, 1963) + Routemaster - Theatre of the Motor (SFO Mix) (Ilppo Pohjola, 2000) WHY: Pair with the above two features for a long evening of speed machines. This is purely dedicated to the glory of the automobile. It is nice to see that, unlike the train of Gehr's Departure, there is no nostalgia for a tech across these films; the car remains a mechanical wonder, a bender of space and time, a tool of human expression.
NEW: Monument Film (Peter Kubelka, 2012) + OLD: Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927), 5 ½ hour Kevin Brownlow 2000 restoration WHY: Two celluloid epics and once-in-a-life-time experiences for me in 2012. Also, the unexploited glory of multi-projector theatrical wonders. (A shot out must also go here to the Nervous Magic Lantern show by Ken and Flo Jacobs I saw at the end of 2012, with music by Aki Onda.)
NEW: Two Years at Sea (Ben Rivers, 2011) + OLD: Trás-os-Montes (António Reis & Margarida Cardoso, 1976) WHY: I'd like to pose the "true" poetic ethnography of the Reis/Cardoso film—focusing on a region—with the "quasi" poetic ethnography of the Rivers—which focuses on an individual. The affinity is mostly in pictorial texture; the dissimilarities would probably be most revealing.
NEW: Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel , 2012) + OLD: UFOs (Lillian Schwartz, 1971) + FM/TRCS (Coleen Fitzgibbon, 1974) WHY: Warbling, obliterating, reconstructing and then deconstructing space, time, and representation.
NEW: Night Across the Street (Raúl Ruiz, 2012) + OLD: Tsukigata Hanpeita (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1925), digest version with sound-on-disc benshi narration + The Parallel Road (Ferdinand Khittl, 1961) WHY: The Kinugasa scrambles its story, motivations, world-space, and time-space continuity not only through its condensed, short-film digest version, but by attaching this already surreal object with a benshi narration telling us information, presumably from the feature length version, that we can't possibly verify in the film story dancing before our eyes and thus must take for granted as true or dismiss as errant fantasy...or possibilities, interpretations. How Ruizian! A true dream text. The Khittl is a purposefully more "institutionalized" version of this: a test of mankind to interpret and catalog "documents" in the form of moving image footage, to understand, to create and recreate stories, to make sense of things, and ultimately to judge. As Khittl tells it in this Twilight Zone episode by way of Ben Rivers, West German industrialization, and post-boom tourism, mankind only always fails to fully understand what it sees. There are always stray strands, stray meanings, dead ends and reverse funnels opening up to near infinite possibilities. Cf. the opening Hitch/Resnais pairing.
NEW: Perret in France and Algeria (Heinz Emigholz, 2012) + OLD: Googolplex (Lillian Schwartz, 1971) WHY: The creation and evolution of geometric / architectural / structural patterning through time. One, manifested in the real, historical and political world, the other in the virtual.
NEW: Burning Star (Josh Solondz, 2012) + Point de Gaze (Jodie Mack, 2012) + OLD: Enigma (Lillian Schwartz, 1971) WHY: Strobbing patterns upon patterns, hypnotic and suggestive of infinity. Two computer generated, one literally hand made.
NEW: differently, Molussia (Nicolas Rey, 2012) + OLD: AKA Serial Killer (Masao Adachi, 1969) [watch here] + The Belly of America (Luc Moullet, 1996) WHY: Landscapes: imagined (Rey), investigated (Adachi), discovered (Moullet). All political, all social, all cultural, all geographic. One literary, one journalistic, one cinephic. The only problem: only one of them is funny.
NEW: Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, USA) + OLD: Perfect Film (Ken Jacobs, 1986) [watch here] WHY: Last year I reluctantly included in a double feature a film I didn't recommend, and here I'm doing it again. But Jacobs' found footage masterpiece came to me in thinking about the "realism" of Bigelow's pseudo-journalistic thriller. The problems of the feature film, to me, seem revealed in the manifold revelations of the local news footage recorded immediately after Malcolm X's assassination and used in Perfect Film, the cubist description of events, the instantaneous, before-our-eyes jockeying for opinion, for understanding, for re-framing reportage and personality for a camera. These "simple" "outtakes" burst out the meanings, unknowns, and complexities of a single event everywhichway in direct counter distinction to the procedural clarity espoused by Bigelow's portrait of modern, global, self-righteous detectivework and assassination.
NEW: The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA)
OLD: Thunderbolt & Lightfoot (Michael Cimino, 1974)
“I don’t want your watch, man—I want your friendship!” —Lightfoot
“I’m the only one that likes you!”—Lancaster Dodd
Two love stories thwarted not by any lack of mutual desire or sexual incongruence but by “forces of the world” and that particular habit of Americans to believe in themselves as, and here Nietzsche would agree, a unique being only once on this earth; and never will his constellation “of diversity in unity” be repeated. Also, money makes everything more difficult than it should be. The first film is practically all interiors, mimicking the space of the characters, and mapping it yet closer by living in the close up. The second film is nearly all exteriors, mimicking the desire for horizons also particular to us Western brutes of will. Though there’s no mistaking the serious (nigh grave) stakes at hand, both films choose the unserious as often and both films are very funny, even picturing what funny does to people, with a number of scenes full of laughing faces. But, in the end (or near the end) of both, no hidden treasure recovered can unveil the world better than the light going out of a pair of eyes.
NEW: Bernie (Richard Linklater, USA, 2011) + OLD: Masques (Claude Chabrol, 1987) WHY: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
NEW: Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012) + OLD: Cast Away (Robert Zemeckis, 2001) WHY: How do you join a world that does not seem to want you?
NEW: The Comedy (Rick Alverson, USA) + OLD: The Boys from Fengkuei (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1983) WHY: To be young, to be aimless, to want to fight everything in the world all at once and all the time.
NEW: Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, USA) + OLD: China 9, Liberty 37 (Monte Hellman, 1978) WHY: Blood everywhere.
NEW: You Ain’t Seen Nothin' Yet! (Alain Resnais, France) + OLD: Sparrow (Johnnie To, Hong Kong) WHY: Time flies.
NEW: Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, USA/Austria)
OLD: Chartres (Jean Grémillon, 1923) + Bonjour Tristesse (Otto Preminger, 1958)
WHY: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to our special double bill. Tonight, first of all, in Museum Hours, you will see Jem Cohen’s camera getting into paintings and exploring the mysteries and humors of space in this cinematic encounter of recently deceased Chris Marker and Brueghel. During our 10 minute interval, if nature is not calling you, please, stay seated and watch a short film, by the greatest revived director of the year, Jean Grémillon. In Chartres, Grémillon displays more possibilities of spatial representation on film and that “universal anguish transmitted by figurative representation.” He also shows some angels crowning the columns of the Chartres cathedral. In the second half of the program, screening newly restored Bonjour Tristesse, one of those angels, Jean Seberg, will descend from column to embody the story in which each scene is treated like a dense architecture/painting composition. While Cohen sees the essential pleasure in the careful observation of ordinary life, put next to the solidness of art and architecture, Preminger’s world is built on the lives of characters whose being is defined by arts, as if they are elements of the space or brush strokes in motion. I hope you enjoy tonight’s show and my final recommendation is listening to Bill Evans’ You Must Believe in Spring album, on your way back home, so your elation of being in the presence of great art be completed. Bonne projection!
NEW: Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, UK)
OLD: The Shout (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1978)
WHY: Toby Jones and John Hurt—two English thesps who are masters of the confused reaction shot—battle with sound in Berberian Sound Studio and The Shout, respectively. Jones is a for-hire recording engineer working on a filthy Italian horror film whose initial impulse to just get the job done and get paid is complicated as he gradually becomes transfixed by the work itself, by the layered, macabre soundscape he’s concocting. On the contrary, Hurt is an independent experimental musician who is gradually shaken from his concentration by a mysterious Aboriginal brute capable of producing (with his own mouth!) a sound much purer than anything Hurt’s character has ever dreamed of. Jones was in his early forties for Berberian Sound Studio and Hurt was in his late 30s when he shot The Shout, and together the films form a double-edged portrait of middle-aged men struggling for control—of their art, of meaning, and of themselves. Peter Strickland and Jerzy Skolimoswki’s films create deeply expressive aesthetic environments that compliment their characters’ contrasting trajectories, but in both cases, the lush visuals approximate only half the density and invention in the films’ soundtracks.
NEW: Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Véréna Paravel , USA)
OLD: Live Projector Performance by Bruce McClure on April 10, 2012
WHY: I saw madman-cum-performer-extraordinaire Bruce McClure give one of his infamous “projector performances” to a room full of Boston professors and filmmakers knowing almost exactly what they were in for earlier this year. I saw Leviathan in Los Angeles in a packed theater of cinephiles eager to love the film just a couple months ago. In retrospect, I got the order wrong. McClure’s assaultive, but oddly lulling, experiment with a strobing screen of “blank” 16mm stock and a plethora of mixers and cables would play beautifully after Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's serene, but steadily nauseating, work of futurist documentary. Both films—or, to account for McClure’s unique one-time spectacle, cinematic happenings—are intensely physical experiences, but while the latter provokes rumblings in the digestive system, the former performs a kind of optical and auditory hysteria that, through its ceaseless repetition, is a tonic for the unsettled body and soul.
NEW: Almayer's Folly (Chantal Akerman, France/Belgium)
OLD: The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)
WHY: Forget Tabu X 2 (Murnau or Gomes) as the obvious, inevitable complement to Akerman’s feverish, inspired Joseph Conrad adaptation; the whole of Almayer’s Folly is really an expansion of the opening jungle scene of The Lady Eve—or, at least, so it struck me on a recent re-viewing of Sturges’ deathless masterpiece. The same set-up of a tunnel-visioned man who knows nothing of life, love, or the wild nature around him. The same comparison of this blind hero with a wily operator who accompanies his downfall. The same cinematic stylisation of just a tiny patch of very artificial-looking land, and a few boats, to signify entire civilisations/nations and the symbolic passage between them. And ‘the same dame’: desiring, vengeful, forever misrecognised by the patriarch(y). Henry Fonda could have done Stanislas Merhar’s final monologue very well…
NEW: Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu, Romania/France)
OLD: Black Narcissus (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1947)
WHY: I raved about Beyond the Hills during its run at the New York Film Festival and, to my eye, it was far and away Mungiu's best work. Both films use the secluded religious site to investigate religion's role in modernity and the clash between religious and secular forms of authority. Ensconced in these thoroughly Christian spaces, both films rely on the buildup of an apparently devilish image: disbelieving women possessed of desire and a violent strength. Whether in the form of Ruth or Alina, the vain and vulgar world will not be held at bay; it slips in, pulsing with a barely contained eroticism. In the Archers' film, the nuns' attempts to ignore desire parallel the colonizer's lack of self-awareness. Dean admonishes the Sister Superior for wishing to see the Holy Man removed from the convent's property, noting that he was there first. Yet neither makes note of the fact that they are both occupying another people's land. In the end, the Holy Man does not move. The nuns must descend from their mountaintop, as must Mungiu's. Under guard, they are removed from a place wherein they thought they saw a reflection of their God, but failed to see the people as they were.
NEW: Bullhead (Michaël R. Roskam, Belgium)
OLD: Au hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)
WHY: Bullhead is a beautifully drawn tragedy, depicting a man of our time trapped by a horrific act and his own character. The film goes to great lengths to make man a beast, while Balthazar makes of the donkey something greater than man. It does not act, it merely responds instinctually according to biology or training. Roskam’s outbursts of violence are more extreme, but even in Bresson’s moments of serenity there is uneasiness, a sense of pervasive cruelty in the world. If Balthazar gives us a beast of burden, purified by its lack of humanity, Roskam’s debut is a heartrending Ecce Homo.
NEW: Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, Canada/France/Portugal/Italy)
OLD: Lune froide (Patrick Bouchitey, 1991)
WHY: I have no idea if Charles Bukowski and Don DeLillo ever met, but these adaptations have much to say to each other. What is terrifying is that they suggest there is no seedy underbelly of society, because it is rotten all the way through. Cosmopolis destroys the idea of the Golden Boy, showing him to be little more than a high-powered brat. His fellow man is of no concern to him. Lune Froide’s Dédé and Simon, by no means financial whiz kids, are equally repellent. What is left, then, between the self-mutilation from those who are “too big to fail,” and the corrosive self-destruction of those who aren’t big enough to have their failures noticed?
Two 2012 Film Experiences That Redefined, For The Author, The Nature of Emotional Experience in The Cinema:
NEW: L'Apollonide (Souvenirs de la maison close) (Bertrand Bonello, France, 2011)
OLD: Napoléon vu par Abel Gance (Abel Gance, 1927; Kevin Brownlow Restoration, 2000; score written and conducted by Carl Davis and performed by the Oakland East Bay Symphony, 2012)
WHY: In the space of a little over 24 hours this spring, I saw two films that absolutely shattered me.
The two most modern films I've seen this century were a silent historical epic from 1927, and a 2011 film about a brief moment of the late 19th century—and through that, a story of our times.
First, Abel Gance's Napoléon vu par Abel Gance, a five-and-a-half-hour journey into the (early) story of Napoleon, perhaps the most formally modern and ambitious film I've seen in a decade. There, having made a pilgrimage to the Bay to see this once-in-a-lifetime event alongside a few close friends and 3000 others, I experienced cinema's closest approximation of worship—a gathering for the purpose of rediscovery, a celebration of the return to life of something long-ago disappeared. Gance's "(historical)" epic comes with footnotes as well as broader context—it extends beyond the portrait of a man to be the portrait of an extended national moment. Napoleon Bonaparte's ambition and taste for the grandly symbolic finds an equal in Gance's Napoleon, in ways that I'd rather not spoil for the uninitiated (and anyway, I'm not up to the task of description). I consider myself very, very lucky to have seen this restored masterpiece, projected on film for what might be the last time. Let's hope I'm wrong about that.
The next day, on my own and still recovering from Napoleon's epic triple-projection finale, I saw Bertrand Bonello's L'Apollonide (Souvenirs de la maison close), at first appearance a Whartonesque portrait of women's solidarity in the last days of a social order, which left me a bit cold and appreciative on only an intellectual level. And then, in the film's final moments, modern-day coda, a brief detail that turns the film into a much larger story about modernity, capitalism, exchange, workers, and the lives of women (or, 'working women') eaten up by a machine that turns humans into exchanged commodities but legislates against their solidarity and defense. Devastated, overwhelmed, unable to stifle enormous tears, I wept, uncontrollably, long through the credits and until I was the last one in the theater. It was perhaps the most shattering experience I've had in a cinema.
Here's to more experiences like these, in the theater and on film, in the year(s) ahead.
Additional pairings (and then some):
NEW: Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal) + OLD: Ana (Margarida Cordeiro & Antonio Reis, 1984) + OLD: Doctor Zhivago (David Lean, 1965) + OLD: The Rising of the Moon (John Ford, 1957) WHY: Memories of Place.
NEW: Jeonju Digital Project 2012, Raya Martin Message (Raya Martin, Philippines) (watch here) + OLD: The Enjoyment of Reading (Lost and Found) (David Gatten, 2001) WHY: The Cinema Is A Party.
NEW: Robbery (Oliver Ressler, UK) (watch here) + OLD: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011) + NEW: Ape (Joel Potrykus, 2012) + OLD: The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994) WHY: Causes and Effects / Breaking Out.
OLD: Mera Naam Joker (Raj Kapoor, 1970) + NEW: Goodbye First Love (Mia Hansen-Løve, France, 2011) WHY: Memories of ...
OLD: Collateral (Michael Mann, 2004) + NEW: The Californians (Saturday Night Live sketch, 2012) (watch here) WHY: Transit.
NEW: Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)
OLD: Babooska (Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel, 2005)
WHY: Tabu's broken-backed structure, which perplexed a few, is the basis of the film's strategy: neither half is completely satisfying if forced to stand alone, despite the attractive compositions and locations. A true film of memory, Tabu prolongs its first half, despite its lack of narrative fascination, because Gomes needs its images of disorientation and disintegration to remain in our mind during the romantic exoticism of the second half: the effect is one of superposition. Babooska, a straight documentary from the admirable Covi and Frimmel (La Pivellina, Der Glanz des Tages), suggests that the young heroine and the circus troupe she belongs to are on the wrong side of history, and a mood of pessimism gradually sets in. Covi and Frimmel select their material carefully, parceling out key information to create an idiosyncratic emotional narrative. Circus footage is withheld until 30 minutes into the film, and not until its last shot do we see Babooska perform - but that last shot, unexpected and radiant, is the equivalent of the second half of Tabu, a vision of paradise that collides dialectically with remembered images of decline.
NEW: Demain? (Christine Laurent, France/Portugal)
OLD: The Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate (Yuzo Kawashima, 1957)
WHY: Demain? is Christine Laurent’s sixth film; she is a wonderful director who works regularly with Jacques Rivette as a writer. Formally, it is a biopic of the Uruguay poet Delmira Agustini. At the age of twenty she published her first collection of poems that was praised by the writer Ruben Dario, and seven years later was killed by her lover. Most of the the action takes place in a closed house where a young woman composes exalted verses upon the yearnings of flesh. The delicate use of ellipses conceals the quick passage of time. The film covers approximately the period from the beginning of 1900s to 1914: recent friends turn into revolutionaries and make headlines; somewhere far away the huge world is swelling, getting ready to explode. Suddenly, quite a few directors turned to the beginnings of the last century in order to discern the signs of the arrival of the present era: such was the case of A Dangerous Method, Hugo, L'Apollonide: Souvenirs de la maison close. The Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate, a masterpiece from Japan, perfectly conveys the postwar anxiety and the post-traumatic tumult. Yuzo Kawashima takes a step back from the modern times: he places the action of his film in a brothel of 1862, some years before the fall of the Shogunate, in order to examine the tectonic shifts through a keyhole of a maison close, just like in L'Apollonide. With all the differences in artistic solutions and aesthetics, there is a crucial motif that brings these pictures together: they are extremely precise in showing what it feels like to live at the beginning of a new century and witness the end of an era (in case of Kawashima); and this is why they are so synchronous with today. The new century first arrives only in the calendars, and then the old one lingeringly dissolves before the characters’ eyes. They are still carelessly waltzing to the music of Stravinsky but the passage of time is inevitable, and Delmira will die three weeks before the murder of the Austrian Archduke. The last scene of Demain? is an imaginary film by the Lumière brothers who would have captured the nonchalant Agustini family on one of a peaceful summer day. This makes Laurent’s film even more similar to the modernist prose of the Swiss author Catherine Colomb whose characters “attached great importance to their rather ghostly faces that the newly emerged photography was already capturing for eternity.”
NEW: Splinters – A Century of an Artistic Family (Peter von Bagh, Finland) + OLD: Porto da minha infância (Manoel de Oliveira, 2001) WHY: Splinters, the life story of the Finnish classic Juhani Aho, the author of Juha, does not have a single shot taken by Bagh himself—it is simply a collage of photographs, quotes, films, paintings and historical newsreels. At a certain point in the film we hear the words: ‘A small object that contained a whole world.’ I think they perfectly describe the cinema of the great Peter von Bagh. Similarly, in Porto there is a phrase by Oliveira: ‘To recall moments from a distant past is to travel out of time. Only each person's memory can do this. It is what I shall try to do.’ I believe that Peter von Bagh’s work is akin to what Manoel de Oliveira has been doing for his whole life—not just telling stories, cinematizing plots or narrating, but also, in each of his films, creating a compelling picture of what civilization is and how it works.
NEW: Gebo and the Shadow (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal-France) + OLD: Oncle Vania (Pierre Léon, France, 1997/2010) WHY: I am unsure whether Gebo is mostly a léonian film or Vania (watch it here) is substantially Oliveirian. Both however are extremely beautiful and deeply rooted in Chekhov’s world.
NEW: La fille de nulle part (Jean-Claude Brisseau, France) + OLD: Les ombres (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1982) WHY: Probably the most underestimated contemporary French cineaste returned to his origins and revised one of his best films. Actually, sublime La fille de nulle part is at the same time a sequel and a remake of his TV-production Les ombres.
NEW: La noche de enfrente (Raúl Ruiz, France-Chile) + OLD: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1947) WHY: The juxtaposition is justified not only by the presence of the sea captain (Mankiewicz) and the pirate (Ruiz): both directors prove just how blurry the line between life and art really is; when we die, we turn into fiction and simply continue to live in other people’s stories.
NEW: A Vingança de Uma Mulher (Rita Azevedo Gomes, Portugal) + OLD: O Som da Terra a Tremer (Rita Azevedo Gomes, Portugal, 1990) WHY: The last and the first film of the brilliant director, for some obscure reasons undiscovered by the world outside Portugal. With the help of great Acácio de Almeida, one of the best cinematographers in Portugal who worked with Raúl Ruiz, João César Monteiro and António Reis, she turns Barbey d’Aurevilly’s writing into a strikingly beautiful cinematographic illusion.
NEW: Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, USA)
OLD: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, et puis après... (Jean Rouch, 1990)
WHY: Revolution dead in Hollywood, at least there’s Tarantino, somehow, in Pasolini’s stead to play along with History as one big, misconstrued narrative of reality. Tarantino’s pop opera Salò, Django Unchained presents, like Rouch’s Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, et puis après..., an ahistorical history of racism as the white man’s great coup de théâtre—a narrative in which everyone is complicit for playing a role, the black servants indicted worst for playing black men. (Maybe only Ford has shown such entrenchment of racial theatrics.) If only Bigelow would flaunt Rouch and Tarantino’s stereoscopic takes on torture: the only release tendered here from the ceremonial spectaculars of civilization is violence, the greatest spectacle of all. Both filmmakers are obligingly repulsive, half-complicit themselves in the narrative rituals that foot such brutal morality: Tarantino's empty hero burning down an allegorical-America mansion; Rouch’s staging of a chicken religiously plucked alive. And yet both know that there are two sides to every story, the hunter’s and the hunted, even if both can only fuel the former’s story. Upending a history of violence, then, means not locating some original truth about the liberty, equality, or fraternity of all men, but showcasing the full theatrics present all along to see what other roles might have been played instead. Rouch’s career-long, Janus-faced vision of both cinema and reality alike as ceremonial fiction and happenstance documentary, alternatively, depending how a narrative framework in voice-over or montage is pitched against a documentary image, collapses in his late films Cyclops-like: fiction and documentary dissolve within the shot, and the viewer can no longer peel them apart. In Liberté, for example, it’s enough for modern-day non-actors in a museum to appear suddenly in colonial garb—amidst modern crowds—for the movie to shift eras into the 1700s (Rouch’s overlaid times in the shot is as revolutionary as Griffith’s in the montage). Enactment or reenactment, the gesture is reenacted again by Jamie Foxx 20 years later (or is it 220? or 100?); as Rouch’s renewal of colonial role-playing into an extemporaneous present offers both an accusation and possibility, in the open, modern air, for the ceremonies to break open and the roles to suddenly shift, Django, by the world’s least improvisitory filmmaker, follows those possibilities through til nothing’s left.
NEW: Cyclopean 3D: or Life With a Beautiful Woman (Ken Jacobs, USA) + OLD: Déjà Vu (Tony Scott, 2006)
NEW: This Side of Resurrection (Joaquim Sapinho, Portugal, 2011) + OLD: L’or des mers (Jean Epstein, 1932)
NEW: Saudade (Jean-Claude Rousseau, France) + OLD: Secret Agent (Alfred Hitchcock, 1936)
NEW: Monument Film (Peter Kubelka, Austria) + OLD: Cossacks in Exile (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1939)
NEW: Resident Evil: Retribution (Paul W.S. Anderson, USA) + OLD: The Dark Mirror (Robert Siodmak, 1946)
NEW: Jai Bhim Comrade (Anand Patwardhan, India)
OLD: Beggars of Life (William A. Wellman, 1928)
WHY: Because the people in Patwardhan’s film and the characters in Wellman’s are struggling for the same thing: survival. Music is the primary weapon used against oppression in Patwardhan’s film, and perhaps would Wallace Beery singing“Don’t You Hear Them Bells?” in Beggars of Life (Paramount’s first sound film) have made this double feature more fitting, but alas, only the silent version has survived. Jai Bhim Comrade depicts 14 years of real-life struggle against the caste system. Wellman’s film is based on Jim Tully’s memoir Beggars of Life: A Hobo Autobiography, and the director cast “twenty riotous hobos” (as Brooks put it) as extras in the film, so even though the film is fiction, Wellman’s images contain nothing but reality (may it be poverty, train-crashes, walks, or landscapes). In one scene in Beggars of Life Jim expatiates, "we are all beggars of life," and I like to add that we are all comrades!
NEW: Saudade (Jean-Claude Rousseau, France) + OLD: Spite Marriage (Edward Sedgwick & Buster Keaton, 1929) WHY: The violence of movement.
NEW: The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and the 27 Years Without Images (Eric Baudelaire, France) + OLD: Casa de Lava (Pedro Costa, 1994) WHY: Lost, lost, lost!
NEW: Far from Afghanistan (John Gianvito, Jon Jost, Minda Martin, Soon-Mi Yoo, Travis Wilkerson, United States, Afghanistan) + OLD: Park Row (Samuel Fuller, 1952) WHY: Gianvito’s statistics of the press coverage of the invasion confirms everything Fuller warns us about.
NEW: Argo (Ben Affleck, USA), screened at BAM
OLD: Cocksucker Blues (Robert Frank, 1972), screened at the MoMA
WHY: A documentary and an historical fiction, respectively, about directors Robert Frank and Tony Mendez as they are both delegated to cobble together the most convincing possible fictions they can fabricate from an uncooperative reality. Mendez received a secret Intelligence Star for concocting and implementing a life-saving yarn whose full details would remain classified for years before getting thrillingly tarted up through Affleck's white-knuckle revisionism, but Frank's curmudgeonly (if frequently hilarious) tale about the true day-to-day depression and drug-induced drudgery that propel a Rolling Stones tour remains legally suppressed by the band to this day. Ironically titled after the Stones' own unusable contractual kiss-off to Decca records, Cocksucker Blues retains its great artistic integrity as a chaotic deliverable lying in direct and sardonic opposition to its benefactors' commission: "Except for the musical numbers, the events depicted in this film are fictitious. No representation of actual persons and events is intended."
NEW: Life of Pi (Ang Lee, USA)
OLD: Traveling Light (Gina Telaroli, 2011)
WHY: Two visions for the future of movies that invent new forms via the narrative of a fiction(alised) voyage. One presents a homogenised vision of India, French colonialism and spirituality; a film unlike anything that has ever come before it, where pristine, sterilised, ugly, glistening machine-images preach to us about the world and about humanity—one that we stare at through 3D goggles, in awe at the story of a saucer-eyed vegetarian boy cast out at sea aboard a lifeboat avec “Richard Parker” the tiger. The other—a small-scale silent (aesthetically “silent”, but with a dense sound mix) charting a trip among friends from New York to Pittsburgh carefully constructed as a string of tiny moments; and from the time-stamp that opens the film (“Penn Station, New York City, February 5, 2010, 10:52am”), to the wild colour of the tram-cars that whizz by out of nowhere, punctuating calm, snowy scenes narrated by a travel guide, to the lone, anoraked man stood at the ticket machine, to the baubles of rain-water that hang on the window pane—the presence of Tony Scott is very strongly felt. Conversely, the Lee film stands alone in the middle of an ocean, like the boy on his raft; untouched by reality or conventional picture-making, it settles for images even flatter than Tony's, and even faker than Bay's or Tarr's. Dual glimpses of what is to come: the responsibility of images juggled between young, fiercely independent, knowledgeable, unpretentious, film- history-indebted movie-makers, who take to the streets with DSLRs, camera phones and Bolexes and—per Nicole Brenez—“film beauty where they see it,” and cynical, impermeable, technical tour de force corporation films (the work of culture-haters / “versatile” hacks like Ang Lee) that, in attempting to pursue human emotion through grossly inhuman strategies, invent stunning meshes of machine-man and man-machine.
NEW: That's My Boy (Sean Anders, USA)
OLD: That's My Boy (Hal Walker, 1951)
WHY: Two versions of masculine deformation. One is Adam Sandler's perpetual schlub, the other is Jerry Lewis' eternal adenoidal child.
NEW: John Carter (Andrew Stanton, USA)
OLD: Gloria (Manuela Viegas, 1999)
WHY: A double bill of opposition in form (the core stories are actually quite similar, even if literally worlds apart): Andrew Stanton's John Carter (2012), an exploration of large scale digital storytelling, and Manuela Viegas' Gloria (1999), a textual ode to the 20th century, tightly controlled and only possible on film. John Carter, tragically maligned, attempts to use the excessive technological tools of today to teach old cinematic dogs new tricks. Scenes that focus on movement—Carter realizing he isn't tied to gravity on Mars and a battle sequence juxtaposed with a sad event from Carter's past—harken back to Keaton and Chaplin and provide hope for how an unrestrictive (big budget) digital landscape can be used to take cinema's most beloved and basic compositions and concepts to new heights. Gloria, tragically unknown, uses the physical properties of film to tell the story of a family and rural town unraveling. While the rhythms and movement Stanton captures (creates) are possible because of the freedom that digital allows, Viegas captures hers through restraint and combining the unique capability of film to capture light and darkness with a soundtrack of natural and unnatural sounds that build and fade, working against, and therefore with, what's on screen. As characters mysteriously move back and forth through their given landscape (soundscape), her movie ever so slowly, but continuously, opens up.
So, for this year, a movie of the new world trying to reinvent the old with a movie of the old world that simply invents.
NEW: Resident Evil: Retribution 3D (Paul W.S. Anderson, USA) + OLD: Starman (John Carpenter, 1984)
NEW: The Extravagant Shadows (David Gatten, USA) + OLD: Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948)
NEW: This Side of Resurrection (Joaquim Sapinho, Portugal 2011) + OLD: Le tempestaire (Jean Esptein, 1947)
NEW: Bachelorette (Leslye Headland, USA) + OLD: Westward the Women (William A. Wellman, 1951)
NEW: Walker (Tsai Ming-liang, Hong Kong) + OLD: French Connection II (John Frankenheimer, 1975)
...and one triple bill: NEW: Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, USA) + OLD: American Dreams: Lost and Found (James Benning, 1984) + Geronimo: An American Legend (Walter Hill, 1993)
...and one more, which would never be a "fantasy" double feature but more of an act of compare/contrast criticism, seeing as I don't think anybody should actually sit through Zero Dark Thirty:
NEW: Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, USA) + OLD: The Prisoner of Shark Island (John Ford, 1936)
NEW: Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France)
OLD: Duck Amuck (Chuck Jones, 1953)
WHY: "The scenery! Where's the scenery?" Daffy Duck exclaims, tumbling out into the terrifying void of a white screen. Denis Lavant's Monsieur Oscar gyrates wildly in a motion capture suit, an unseen voice barking orders from off-camera. Forever stuck inside the confines of the frame, Daffy and Oscar are at the mercy of their creators' whims, and we marvel as entire worlds are animated around them. They're both performers enacting a parade of roles: Daffy a musketeer, farmer, skier, hula dancer, country singer, sailor, pilot; Oscar a banker, beggar, monster, father, accordion player, killer, victim, dying man. Both meet their doppelganger face-to-face—and each tries to do away with their double.
My friend and fellow programmer Nellie Killian (who was responsible for screening Duck Amuck twice on 35mm in New York in 2012, at her Migrating Forms festival and BAMcinématek), coined the phrase "setpiece cinema" in reference to Holy Motors in her own year-end wrap-up. And indeed, Carax's self-reflexive (and self-reflective) masterpiece is the mixtape movie par excellence, perfectly indicative of how modern viewing habits—the segmentation of feature films into YouTube clips—have shaped filmmaking practice. (There are now as many year-ends lists for Best Scene as there are for Best Film.) Carax has always had a way with stand-out sequences (the sprint to "Modern Love" in Mauvais sang, the fireworks of The Lovers on the Bridge), but Holy Motors feels different: it's all fireworks, a veritable greatest hits of the director's pet obsessions. Each scene plays like its own Merrie Melodie.
NEW: In the Family (Patrick Wang, 2011, USA)
OLD: How Green Was My Valley (John Ford, 1941)
WHY: I drove 75 miles in a snowstorm to see In the Family–150 miles of driving, round trip, for 169 minutes of cinema–based on how first-time writer-director-actor Patrick Wang delivers one line in a scene posted to the Internet. The impact of Wang’s acting in that scene pivots on the emphasis he places on the word see in the question, “Does that mean I can’t see him?”, just as Wang’s accent, which is put-on, functions as the inflection point around which the entire picture succeeds, perfectly embodying the compassion, grace, and empathy that makes In the Family one of the most important independent (self-distributed!) pictures of its time.
Just as finding the right accent enabled Wang to make In the Family, the sound of Henry Fonda’s voice sent John Ford’s pictures to new heights, providing aural expressiveness as rich as his visuals. How Green Was My Valley is the peak of what may be the greatest streak of filmmaking we’ll ever see—six supreme masterpieces in three years—and it might not have been possible if the Fonda films hadn’t come first. Did Patrick Wang, an unknown theatre actor, make the best film about family since How Green Was My Valley? Walking out of the warehouse theatre where I saw it in Hartford, CT, as the snow let up and a freight train passed ten yards from where we stood, it’s a question I found myself asking, and the best way to answer it would be to watch them back to back. Henry Fonda was an unknown theatre actor once, too.
NEW: You Instead (David Mackenzie, UK) + OLD: Little Fugitive (Morris Engel, 1953). WHY: More self- or barely distributed films, both shot hand-held, utilizing improvisation and making the most of their locations, which for Little Fugitive is Coney Island, for You Instead, the T in the Park music festival in Scotland. Both incorporate the real world into their fictions; the remarkable, lunatic thing about You Instead is that it was shot in four days. Roger Corman supposedly directed Little Shop of Horrors in two days and a night, not counting pickups and exteriors, but that was filmed like a sitcom; with You Instead, the frenzy of the production is mirrored in the spontaneity of the mise en scène. Little Fugitive was an influence on Truffaut and Cassavetes; both pictures exemplify the fun of doing something that hasn’t been done before; both pictures testify to cinema’s eternal innocence.